Defeated by our own technology?

Paul Lewandowski suggests so in a recent blog on ForeignPolicy.com (registration required):

Insurgent techniques became simpler, low-tech. Military-grade munitions gave way to homemade explosives. Cell phone detonators regressed back to command wire. Suicide bombers and insurgents disguised as Afghan army or police proved more efficient than complex, electronic IEDs or expensive VBIEDs. After nearly 13 years of war, the terrorists have learned that the best counter to a techno-savvy force is simplicity.

While this is certainly true, another, perhaps better way to characterize what’s happening is that the Taliban, al-Shabab and others confronting Western military forces aren’t so much out-innovating us as out-learning us. In other words, they aren’t coming up with better and simpler technology to counter ours. Instead, they’ve just stopped playing that game entirely. What’s most interesting is that they’re getting away with it, that is, they’ve found another game to play that works better.

As Lewandowski notes, what they’ve done is return to the roots of insurgency:

deeply embedded in the local culture, regional in focus, and urban in operation. The new insurgent will be so low tech he will be virtually untraceable. Another face in a sea of faces.

Compare with Boyd’s description of guerrilla warfare:

  • Guerrillas must establish implicit connections or bonds with people and countryside.
  • In other words, guerrillas must be able to blend into the emotional-cultural-intellectual environment of people until they become one with the people.
  • In this sense, people feelings and thoughts must be guerrilla feeling and thoughts while guerrilla feelings and thoughts become people feelings and thoughts; people aspirations must be guerrilla aspirations while guerrilla aspirations become people aspirations; people goals must be guerrilla goals while guerrilla goals become people goals.
  • Result: Guerrillas become indistinguishable from people while government is isolated from people. (Patterns 95)

Or, as Lewandowski puts it:

The counterinsurgent could see them walking to their target, weapon in hand, and never register him as a threat … The counterinsurgent can’t tap into the local, informal network the way the insurgent can. No one talks to the uniformed government official, but everyone talks to their neighbor.

And that’s the real problem. Until “counterinsurgents” solve that one, all the technological innovation in the world is just expensive wheel spinning. Another example of incestuous amplification.

8 thoughts on “Defeated by our own technology?

  1. “Result: Guerrillas become indistinguishable from people while government is isolated from people.”

    There is a tipping point, and we’ve seen it dozens of times, in the Iranian revolution,
    Marcos of the Philippines, Pinochet, S. Vietnam, etc, etc, and more recently in Lybia, and Egypt, when it becomes that enough, or practically all of the people, become involved and complicit, with the violent opposition to the ruling elites. If that opposition is coherent,
    and united in purpose. In the most recent examples of Syria, and Ukraine, (remains to be seen) it is NOT. Nor were there simply anywhere near enough in China, back around Tianamen.

    There is a fine line, and balancing act, in ALL governed societies, to how much the OLIGARCHS can get away with, and for how long. Human nature being what it is, they often miss the warnings, haven gotten away with so very much, and for so long. When the majority of the public is reduced to desperation and misery they rise up, and it rarely ends well for the oppressor.
    M

    • @Chet
      “While this is certainly true, another, perhaps better way to characterize what’s happening is that the Taliban, al-Shabab and others confronting Western military forces aren’t so much out-innovating us as out-learning us. In other words, they aren’t coming up with better and simpler technology to counter ours. Instead, they’ve just stopped playing that game entirely. What’s most interesting is that they’re getting away with it, that is, they’ve found another game to play that works better.”

      Insurgents by their very nature have an OODA loop that is much faster. They do not have a bureaucracy, a chain of command, and are by nature, dispersed, networked, with a highly de-centralized system.

      All it means is that they can orient themselves much, much more effectively than any conventional 2nd generation force can, which it would seem has made up for the disparity in resources. At the very best, the US can hope to achieve a strategic stalemate. It is impossible to militarily lose of course, but a victory too is elusive. But there are consequences – namely the monetary and moral costs of war, which are every bit as severe as had there been a defeat against a 3rd generational “conventional” opponent.

      Of course they will not play the “game” of conventional warfare. That would be suicide. What they will play is the game most favorable to them. With a slower OODA loop, the US has no choice but to engage on their terms – or leave (which is the most prudent option in this case).

      @maximilliangc
      “There is a fine line, and balancing act, in ALL governed societies, to how much the OLIGARCHS can get away with, and for how long. Human nature being what it is, they often miss the warnings, haven gotten away with so very much, and for so long. When the majority of the public is reduced to desperation and misery they rise up, and it rarely ends well for the oppressor.”

      All of this begs a question that is even more alarming – could it happen in the US? Particularly given the direction that things have gone. At this point, it is clear that the current system is incapable of making the needed reforms, from either military spending, to grand strategy, to various domestic issues.

      – Chris

      • All of this begs a question that is even more alarming – could it happen in the US?

        It’s worth remembering that the military of the United States has conducted at least one successful counter-insurgency campaign.

      • @Chet

        Are you referring to the rebellion in the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century?

        The question I have for you is, are any of the lessons learned transferable? The world has changed a lot since then.

        More importantly, even if there were lessons to be learned (and indeed, history often has much to teach us), would the political climate in the US permit for such lessons to be taught?

        – Chris

      • No, because the Philippines wasn’t part of the United States. I was thinking of the insurgency that ended in the Spring of 1865.

  2. The structure of the Taliban and the greater insurgency has the agility to flex and move with the change in the tactics of the counterinsurgency. Like a puzzle made of broken mirrors, the lines between the separate cells are difficult to piece together, and what displays to the COIN is a tapestry of an illusory and fragmented picture of the overall organization. People who are reported as being killed in an airstrike in Helmand are spotted months later in Khartoum. The organization takes full advantage of the porous borders, corrupt regimes, and lax enforcement by countries of international sanctions to flow like sodium ions into and out of areas of conflict. The net effect is to cause an ever more expensive and less efficient COIN, that staggers around with a big hammer shattering the mirror and further distorting the picture. I think it could be safely argued that a guerrilla organization that nimble could not function by using the same technology of the COIN. The crack in technology is simplicity. Less things to break and force a halt to operations. Admittedly, there are times when the COIN scores a coup, but usually more as a result of luck than anything else.

  3. What work has been done on undermining the insurgents’ strategy, as it is formalised?

    After all, if a tech-savvy group is outwitted by an opposition which plays a different game, what of a counter-insurgency group that counters this opposition by outwitting it at the local level by also playing a different (but non-tech-savvy) game?

    Am thinking, for instance, of what is done by advisors like the Human Terrain System to get this counter-insurgency group into the interstices/liminal spaces of the insurgents, resulting in the asymmetric chaos and disorder which is needed to defeat it. Any feedback on this?

  4. To undermine the insurgency is going to require that the first problem be solved. A successful insurgency is one that is armed adequately. In every instance where a rogue insurgency has taken root, various organizations and governments attempt to curtail the flow of arms to the insurgency. In almost every instance this has failed because there is an enormous network of “free enterprise” transporters who will smuggle arms to the insurgents who have a very large pocketbook. As an example, it is estimated that in 2010, $10 million dollars a day was smuggled out of Kabul to various countries where the money was laundered and used to pay for the insurgency. That money was from Afghan opium. Afghanistan supplies more than one third of the world supply of heroin. Unfortunately, the very governments that are involved in the COIN in many instances actually facilitate this. What does that imply? In short, we are actually assisting those we are trying to destroy, because of the political, and often, the humanitarian aid we are trying to give. There are so few legitimate cargo operations who are able to undercut the price for flying humanitarian aid into dangerous locations. The problem is not knowing that it happens, but NOT knowing how to stop it. In other words, if you can staunch the flow of money and munitions to the insurgency, you will have won the largest part of the battle. Nobody has figured out how to do this for the reasons delineated in my previous posting.

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