America’s History of Failure in Unconventional and Asymmetric Warfare Is Instructive for Our War with the Coronavirus

Excerpt 2 of 5, adapted to stand alone, from a May 26, 2020 SPECIAL REPORT on coronavirus

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981)

Not bad for a little furball, there’s only one left.

—Gen. Han Solo to Princess Leia Organa after a tiny Ewok lured three Imperial Scout Troopers away from guarding the Death Star II’s shield generator’s rear entrance on Endor’s moon, in George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Ironically, as Historian Max Boot noted, “today, we’re used to having American soldiers be the forces of the government. And, of course, in our revolution, we were the insurgents and the British were the role of the counterinsurgents, and, in fact, many of the strategies which the American rebels used against the British are similar in many ways to the strategies now being used against us around the world.”  There’s a reason for that current state of affairs, and it’s about our unmatched power.

America’s military might—by far the greatest on earth—is both a blessing and a curse. 

It is a blessing in that nobody can take us on militarily directly, nor can any plausible coalition of nations, especially when factoring in our massive alliance system, an “empire of trust;” this combination of hard and soft power is unlike anything in history since ancient Rome.

Yet this very power means that smart enemies do not even try to take us on in a traditional military sense; conventional, symmetric responses are, essentially, suicidal for our enemies, who, instead, opt for unconventional and asymmetric means. In the words of Gen. H.R. McMaster, “There are basically two ways to fight the US military: asymmetrically and stupid.”  Thus, mostly all our recent conflicts have been a.) primarily unconventional in that, for the bulk of the fighting, we are operating against forces that are not regular state military units in standard-range uniforms behaving within more traditional norms of warfare and  b.) primarily asymmetric in that this unconventional organization, equipment, tactics, and strategy on the part of our adversaries are products of those adversaries accepting the power imbalance between our stronger forces and their weaker ones and are designed to address this imbalance

And when facing unconventional and asymmetric warfare in recent decades, America’s track record is actually pretty poor.  Without a doubt, biowarfare falls under the category of unconventional since it involves illegal, rare, and atypically deployed weapons and is also asymmetric because few things besides bioweapons can reduce the advantages of a more powerful enemy with such relatively low cost and easy access. Thus, as our current coronavirus pandemic has many implications for bioterrorism and biowarfare, so, too, should the below analysis offer much food for thought on biodefense in the coronavirus era.

1.) A Brief History of America in Unconventional, Asymmetric Conflict

Throughout our history, it was basically in campaigns marked by sustained brutality—including massive forced population transfers and the killing of civilians—that American colonists and later the U.S. Army defeated Native Americans over several centuries, who themselves often employed what we would call unconventional and asymmetric tactics, as well as brutal ones.

Ironically considering our later history, we used unconventional, asymmetric tactics to great success against the British in our Revolution. 

But it was in massive failure that U.S. Army troops defending both civil rights for freed slaves and legitimate biracial state governments withdrew from the Reconstructed South (the final troops leaving in 1877) as white supremacist terrorist campaigns destroyed every one of those governments in the postwar South.  The Ku Klux Klan and others carried on an insurgency lasting years of unconventional, asymmetric warfare and terrorism against U.S. forces, local troops, state governments, the rule of law itself, and those citizens who worked with and supported the new order, whether they were white or black (and in this sense, their campaigns were hardly different from the terrorist insurgencies in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan).  The more just society being built in relatively modern terms was destroyed, and the ensuing Jim Crow reign of terror of the Klan, the noose, and corrupted local judicial systems in the American South and sometimes beyond would not begin to be seriously dismantled until the 1960s.  Thus, with the Civil War, the U.S. won the war in four years but lost the peace for about a century after.

With the massive unconventional and asymmetric insurrection in the Philippines, which the U.S. occupied in 1898 in the Spanish-American War, it was back to brutality and murder to achieve victory.  That is not to say that, to its credit, the U.S. did not start with a softer hand there, but that proved to be ineffective at stopping the Filipino rebels, and it was only when harsher and more robust measures were taken that the insurgents were truly defeated.

While American forces in the Vietnam war won all the actual big battles against the conventional North Vietnamese Army, the unconventional Viet Cong above all else eventually broke America’s will to keep fighting in Vietnam with an unconventional, asymmetric approach.  Our collective withdrawal from South Vietnam and, eventually, Saigon was an ignominious disaster for U.S. interests in the region and those of our South Vietnamese allies.  Leaving aside any debates on a “road not taken” and military tactical successes, the U.S. was, simply, defeated.  America won the battles, yet lost the war.

In Lebanon and Somalia, American leaders rapidly drew down their involvement after a series of high-profile Hezbollah bombings in Beirut in 1983 and the notorious “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu in 1993 despite both missions having substantial international support.  Key humanitarian aims of the mission in Somalia were actually fairly well-accomplished and saved hundreds of thousands of lives before the withdrawal, and even in Lebanon with our problematic mission there, significant humanitarian achievements still occurred.

In between the unconventional, asymmetric challenges in Lebanon and Somalia, our overwhelming triumph in the conventional 1991 Gulf War actually helped lead us to be overconfident and over-reliant when it came to our conventional military abilities (and, to a lesser extent, the same could be said of the two air campaigns in the Balkans), setting us up for even greater failures in ensuing decades.  “Black Hawk Down” would be the first buzzkill of our post-Gulf War high, just the first of many setbacks in the wars to come.  And in the cases of both Lebanon and Somalia, terrorists—Hezbollah and al-Qaeda—took inspiration for future terrorist attacks from our withdrawals, with both Lebanon and Somalia devolving into prolonged periods of war that killed many people and terribly destabilized their respective regions.

As for al-Qaeda, its Osama bin Laden had several basic goals behind its asymmetric, unconventional 9/11 attacks that would come years later.  They looked at the world relevant to them as being divided into two major camps: the “near enemy”—all the regimes ruling Muslim populations that were not run by Islamic principles as defined by al-Qaeda: the monarchs, dictators, and democracies from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Indonesia—and the “far enemy”—foreign governments propping up the near enemy, especially the United States.

With 9/11, bin Laden wanted to recreate for America the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.  As he saw it, the Soviet invasion galvanized Muslims from around the world to fight off the atheist communist infidel invader, who got bogged down over years in a conflict that sapped its treasure and strength and led to the Soviet Union’s final collapse; with the invaders ousted from Afghanistan, an Islamic regime in al-Qaeda’s mold—the Taliban—came to power. 

Osama bin Laden’s dream with 9/11, then, was to bait the U.S. into one or more wars of attrition, rally Muslims from around the world to his banner to fight the occupying invader, force an American withdrawal after it expended so much blood and treasure, see the U.S. sour on supporting allied governments in the Middle East in the aftermath, and pull its bases out as a result or as a result of additional conflict with and attacks from al-Qaeda, flushed with recruits after already beating the Americans in one war.  In short, the endgame was to remove the presence and influence of the “far enemy”—namely America—in the Middle East and then topple the “near enemy” regimes there and elsewhere ruling over the Muslim world.   

As we know, 9/11 helped bin Laden goad the U.S. into two such wars, not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, and while we withdrew from Iraq after seven-and-a-half years on terms far better than the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, extremists’ policies against their own people on the parts of both the Syrian government and our allied Iraqi government empowered the unconventional and asymmetric ISIS—Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq’s rebirth and successor—to create a “caliphate” that ate up large parts of territory in both countries, forcing the U.S. reentry into Iraq and intensifying involvement in Syria.  While bin Laden expected us to invade Afghanistan, Iraq was something of a gift to him. 

The Iraq War resulted in the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, meaning Iran became our biggest enemy in the region.  But while in the beginning this was due mainly to a process of elimination, shortly after, it would also be because Iran grew considerably in power as a result of our actions, eventually playing dominant roles in Iraq and Syria and having major influence in Yemen, too, in, addition to having its longstanding leverage in Lebanon.  In short, Iran was the main victor of our Iraq War.  But especially considering how dynamics played out as war raged in Syria and up through today, Iran is hardly the only major U.S. foe to benefit from recent U.S. missteps and missed opportunities: the chief global U.S. antagonist, Russia, is also far stronger in the Middle East today at the expense of the U.S. (not to mention elsewhere around the globe). 

Ironically, as I have noted, counterinsurgency (COIN) worked well in the Iraq War after the negligent leadership of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and its gains held well until late 2013 in spite of a U.S. withdrawal that had been completed before the end of 2011.  Much of this effort was overseen by Rumsfeld’s replacement, Sec. Robert Gates, and the man in uniform he tapped to execute the mission, Gen. David Petraeus. But the earlier blunders of the U.S. had pushed to the center stage of a frightened, increasingly sectarian Iraq one Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister, who fed off division and increased it at the same time, playing somewhat nice while U.S. troops were still in-country but becoming increasingly unshackled as time went on and especially after the U.S. pullout.  Rather than the Obama Administration’s withdrawal, then, it was Maliki’s oppressive governing style that wiped out U.S. security gains and soon had ISIS governing a “caliphate” that included large portions of Iraqi territory right up to the gates of Baghdad by mid-2014, a situation demanding U.S. entry into the conflict to prevent a terrible situation from becoming far worse and far more genocidal, in spite of the Obama Administration’s reluctance to reinsert U.S. forces into Iraq after withdrawing them just a few years earlier.

The same Obama Administration, reluctant to appear political in an election year, responded abysmally in 2016 to Russia’s game-changing asymmetric unconventional election interference that relied on propaganda, disinformation, hacking, and social media.  In short, we lost what I dubbed the (First) Russo-American Cyberwar, and it is worth noting (and I have noted) that, from the media to the government to the public, we are making many of the same mistakes we did in the 2016 election cycle in the 2020 election cycle, to some degree even willfully.  Russia is beating us at unconventional asymmetric cyberwarfare with advanced, pioneering approaches; the Second Russo-American Cyberwar is already underway and America is already losing.

And while the Obama Administration took a relatively large degree of care to avoid alienating local populations and inflicting civilian casualties while staying true to allies in its fight against ISIS, the Trump Administration has pretty much taken an anything-but approach—killing far more civilians—even as it relaxed its assault against ISIS when the group was close to losing all its territory in Syria and Iraq, allowing for ISIS to make something of a comeback.  Even worse, in October, 2019, the Trump Administration abandoned our true allies there—the Kurds and others fighting alongside and inside the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.)–who had worked together for years against both ISIS and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  This betrayal was carried out so suddenly, and in such a way, that it dramatically undermined our ability to fight unconventional asymmetric warfare in the region, an ability that is so heavily dependent on trust and partnering with non-state actors on the ground who have longstanding, intimate relationships with the locals as members of their communities and know the landscape as only locals can.  This withdrawal was also done in a way that undermined our entire regional position, ceding much territory and influence to actors working against many of our interests: to an “ally” we could not trust (Turkey, seeking to pulverize both Kurdish forces that had fought alongside us and Kurdish autonomy as well as engage in “demographic engineering” against the Kurds) and our main rivals in the region (Russia and Iran, Assad’s top allies).  This withdrawal minimized what was already a minimal deployment (far from a costly or expensive one, especially relative to so many recent deployments) that was giving us an amazing payoff for the small amount of resources allocated.

As for the Afghanistan war, that “other” war that bin Laden’s 9/11 prodded us into, it has been a mess for nearly its entirety and still is, waxing and waning to one degree or another in its state of messiness, Afghanistan having been at war for decades before the U.S. toppled the Taliban.  Here, too, unconventional and asymmetric tactics wore down American will after American leadership’s initial projections of swift “victory” set up inevitable cynicism and disappointment, with Alec Worsnop highlighting for the Modern War Institute at West Point (MWI)  the Taliban’s particular skill at asymmetry.  Though the Obama Administration tapped Gen. Petraeus to recreate his successes in Iraq in Afghanistan with another surge, the far lower degree of national development there combined with U.S. political leadership not being committed to the resourcing required to achieve our stated aims—let alone try to sell Americans on a longer-term commitment—meant that, with that Petraeus surge or without it, that war would remain what it has been for years: an exercise in futility apart from preventing an unstable, violent status quo from becoming far worse.  Another surge under the Trump Administration also failed to significantly alter the overall negative dynamics on the ground for the better.  However President Trump describes his intent to pull out U.S. forces now, it is hard to objectively consider American disengagement after so many years as anything but a victory to the Taliban unless the Taliban suddenly becomes the opposite of what it has consistently been for the entirety of the conflicted, which is an extremist religious group that resorts to extreme methods to achieve its aims, relying almost wholly on violence and terror to “govern” and one that cannot be trusted to upholds agreements of any sort, let alone the type the Trump Administration is trying to reach with it. 

There has not anytime recently been and will not be the political will for a significantly better-resourced, medium-to-longer-term international effort in Afghanistan, the best approach to give that country its best chance to transition to overall to higher levels of stability and one that I advocated for in writing in 2009 as a graduate student. But that hardly means the failures in Afghanistan are all on the political-leadership side and that the military does not also shoulder significant blame, as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2003-2005, Gen. David Barno, wrote in 2019.  Still, senior military leaders seem to have been more careful with their use of language compared to political leaders, and it was the political leadership that either set expectations and parameters that were unrealistic or simply avoided engaging with the public on the war, hoping more to avoid having the war cause them political damage than have any seriously honest national public dialogue about Afghanistan.

What we have been engaging in there in an overall sense—open-ended long-term stalemate that prevents a worst-case scenario—can be a hard sell as the best option (not that it has been generally honestly sold as that), but that does not necessarily make it bad policy.  To quote Gen. Petraeus in a recent piece (one he penned with security-policy hand Vance Serchuk): “This strategy has been costly and unsatisfying—but also reasonably successful.”

Yet, just as was the case in Syria, President Trump seems ready to just walk away in a way that leaves America, along with our local allies, exposed and weakened.


There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.

—President George W. Bush, September 17, 2002

Patterns and Themes of Failure

As Gen. Petraeus and Serchuk concluded in their piece on Afghanistan: “More broadly, history suggests that capitulation in the name of peace rarely succeeds in either curbing an adversary’s ambitions or moderating its behavior—at least not for long.”  Far more often than not, this has been proven repeatedly by rapid U.S disengagement in Lebanon, Somalia, and Syria, each of which preceded further disasters.

If one thinks of long-term American objectives in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia as they have stood over several decades now, the net results of our two massive wars there are massive setbacks right and left and up and down throughout those regions.  To a large extent, we did exactly what bin Laden wanted us to do: while he may have not have gotten the full collapse of the U.S. and long-lasting caliphate of which he dreamed, he still played us like a harp and saw huge portions of his goals realized from our myopia, not just in the Muslim world but also in how our two 9/11-prodded wars changed America by dividing Americans, draining national resources in a way that helped generate an economic near-collapse in 2008, and weakening our domestic democratic politics and institutions.  So perhaps, domestically, bin Laden’s plan is still a posthumous work-in-progress; we may very well make it out of these dark times with our system intact, but that is not guaranteed, and if we do not, 9/11 will surely be looked at as the catalyst for a chain of self-destructive events and trends that were accelerating well-before this current pandemic.  And the dynamics behind many of those events and trends are tied directly or indirectly with our failure to address non-traditional threats successfully. 

At the time of the peak of the “surge” COIN campaign that dramatically improved security conditions in Iraq, it might have been harder (though hardly impossible) to see possible failure and far harder to see an ISIS “caliphate” peaking some seven years later, but, conversely, at this peak of ISIS’s territorial gains, it is hard to look back at the surge and think that it ever had a chance to produce long-term success.  Perhaps the sectarianism and violence unleashed during Sec. Rumsfeld’s tenure, then, meant any positive impact from Sec. Gates and Gen. Petraeus, no matter how right-headed and brilliant they were, was doomed not to be as transformative as we wished, and probably from the start, especially since those Rumsfeldian dynamics installed Maliki in Iraq before the surge and well before the time we withdrew, helping him stay in power even when his heavier worsened.  Or, perhaps the surge era-effort was not doomed; to his credit, Gen. Petraeus saw, writing in late October 2013, that “this is a time for [American and Iraqi leaders of the surge] to work together to help Iraqi leaders take the initiative, especially in terms of reaching across the sectarian and ethnic divides that have widened in such a worrisome manner.  It is not too late for such action, but time is running short.”  He was all too right: time was running very short, as it was just matter of a few months until it would all come crashing down.   

I included the discussion and points in the previous paragraph here to illustrate the larger point that such is often how the U.S. finds itself: fighting demons of its own making, never really getting away enough from those demons to have a fresh start, succeed, and reach its ideals, however genuine those ideals may be.  If Sec. Gates and Gen. Petraeus were, in many ways, prisoners of the mistakes of the early years of the U.S. in Iraq and Sec. Rumsfeld’s legacy, then Obama and his team, as well as Iraq and Iraqis overall, were, in a similar sense, prisoners of the Bush Administration’s legacy.  In this world we live in, the U.S. is hardly unique here except perhaps sometimes in matters of degree, as other nations, whole peoples, even ourselves as individuals are often prisoners of our own past or those of our parents and ancestors.  We fall prey to the demons of the past and, in doing so, create demons of our own, ensnaring our very children, and their children, and so on, a generational, tragic spiral of trauma.  Indeed, trauma has a nasty habit of outliving its immediate effects (and exponentially so, at that).  It literally embeds itself into our very beings, down to our genes.

And our demons of failure with unconventional and asymmetric threats haunt us today and will for some time: the American government simply does not seem to get how to deal with the irregular and non-traditional.  For MWI nonresident fellow Max Brooks, there is something of a cultural deficiency in America that pushes us in this direction; in a mid-March interview discussing the problems with our current coronavirus response, Brooks remarked that “American culture has always had strengths and weaknesses, and one of our weaknesses has always been putting our head in the sand.  Not reacting to coronavirus—that’s just the latest one—but 9/11, Sputnik, Pearl Harbor … Americans are always the worst at proactive response.  That’s our weakness.”

So when confronted with such threats, the U.S. has failed and failed pretty miserably in a larger sense since the 1960s.  From the terrorism of the Taliban to the cyberwarfare of Russia, there are certain common denominators present in these asymmetric, unconventional situations to which we are not properly adjusting, ensuing that we keep losing again and again and again, allowing our own strengths and divisions to be played to cripple democracy at home (Russia’s election interference in 2016) and sometimes seeing the unraveling of our own notable own successes (the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 negating the 2007 surge) or even undoing them ourselves (missions having positive impact turning into rapid withdrawals in 1984 in Lebanon, 1994 in Somalia, and 2019 in Syria).

COVID-19’s Deadly Impact Magnified by Recent U.S. Failures Facing Unconventional, Asymmetric Crises

If this seems unrelated to coronavirus, think again.

That withdrawal of most of a tiny contingent of U.S. troops in northern Syria has not only led to a reinvigorated ISIS but also a massive humanitarian crisis.  Millions of Syrians there are caught in what one article’s headline calls “the world’s worst game of Risk.”  In fact, even though Syria is now getting far less attention in the media because of coronavirus and a general ennui for Syria among other factors, the current situation in Syria is the worst humanitarian crisis of the entire decade-long war, with more people being driven from their homes than at any other time of the war.

The Idlib governorate on Turkey’s border is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria and has some three million people living in it now, but half those are Syrians internally displaced from their homes (IDPs) because of the war.  With the latest round of fighting in Idlib, some one million people have been recently displaced there, many not for the first time.  To make matters even worse, the region is experiencing an unusually harsh winter and displaced children are freezing to death in the cold. 

On top of war, a lack of supplies and aid coming in, and harsh conditions, now these desperate people must face coronavirus, a threat well-represented by the title of a recent Refugees International briefing, “A Crisis on Top of a Crisis: COVID-19 Looms over War-Ravaged Idlib,” which describes the situation there regarding coronavirus as being “like a tinderbox waiting for the match.”  The disease is spreading elsewhere in Syria and Turkey, surrounding Idlib, but conditions in northern Syria—with Syrian, Iranian, Russian, Kurdish, Turkish, S.D.F., and ISIS forces operating among other groups in a chaotic theater—mean tracking and treating the virus are themselves Herculean tasks.  Reporting on the virus can be slow, and that is if authorities are cooperating and being transparent, which in Syria and elsewhere in the region is hardly a given; in other words, we really have no idea how bad coronavirus is spreading in the area.  Furthermore, it is incredibly difficult getting aid into Idlib with all the fighting as the Syrian Civil War rages with the Assad regime’s forces’ latest offensive into Idlib, supported by Russian and Iranian forces; attacks against civilians are rampant.  The Syrian government is even blocking the transport of medical supplies to where they are needed, finding a way to weaponize the coronavirus even as aid workers and local medical staff are flat-out warning that they are not equipped or prepared to deal with coronavirus, with medical equipment and supplies being scarce in the area.

Even before this COVID-19 crisis, the local healthcare infrastructure had been decimated by the war, with some 80 hospitals taken out of commission in Idlib alone.  This has been by design, as, throughout the war, Assad regime forces with Russian backing have been deliberately targeting hospitals and other key civilian infrastructure related to food and water, as has the Russian Air Force.  Displaced civilians were already extremely vulnerable in Idlib, and now they face a pandemic with great uncertainty as to whether they will have the necessary aid to survive it alongside a host of other threats in a warzone (you can help them here).  The virus will certainly make (and already has made) their already extremely difficult lives significantly worse even if it does not infect or kill them.

These civilians in Idlib are often fleeing the Syrian’s government’s offensive to a Turkish border that has been sealed off to them—Turkey, already hosting some 3.7 million refugees, refuses to take in any more—with masses of people trapped with nowhere to go, a situation ripe for a coronavirus outbreak as they cannot practice social distancing since they live in crowded tents (if they even have shelter), nor do they have the ability to practice good hygiene since they lack proper amounts of soap and easy access to water.  Refugee camps there and elsewhere in the Middle East are teeming with people and short on necessary supplies, meaning they are potential disasters-in-the-making.

This conflict has only greatly intensified in Syria’s north lately in the absence of a stabilizing U.S. presence after the recent U.S. withdrawal discussed earlier.  It was because of that withdrawal that Turkey was able to carry out its destabilizing invasion of northern Syria, an invasion that itself displaced hundreds of thousands of people.  After its reckless invasion and engaging directly against Assad’s forces, Turkey—a NATO member state—has been furious that NATO is not supporting it as it takes casualties from attacks from Syrian forces getting support from the Russian government.  To pressure NATO states, Turkey is actively encouraging thousands of refugees it is hosting to migrate to Greece and Europe, even transporting them to the no-man’s land separating the Turkish and Greek borders—where desperate refugees caught as pawns have even clashed with Greek border guards—in a naked play to use these refugees as leverage against European NATO countries.  Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made his intent in this regard explicit and clear and does not even try to deny he is weaponizing the refugees for political purposes.  If refugees in Turkey come down with COVID-19, this would be a far more ominous context for the dangerous game Turkey is playing with Europe.  For now, with coronavirus spreading in Turkey and Greece and refugees in camps in Greece coming down with the virus, the Turkish government late in March evacuated the makeshift camp that had popped up for the refugees it had sent to the Greek border and quarantined the refugees for two weeks. Those being released from the quarantine often end up sleeping in the streets, caught in limbo amid coronavirus, with Turkey indicating it will recklessly resend them to the closed Greek border once the pandemic subsides.

In Syria, Turkey, Greece, and all over the world, aid operations were forced to undergo massive, disruptive adjustments are being cut back drastically because of COVID-19, and with a field that was already spread thin amid a record number of people being displaced globally, the vulnerable populations the aid field was servicing cannot afford to be deprioritized.

But in particular, in northern Syria, President Trump’s Syrian withdrawal was the catalyst for the sad chain of events that has the situation there where it is now: far worse than it would have been otherwise and guaranteed to get even worse yet in the midst of a global pandemic.  The difference this all will cause in the number of dead from COVID-19 and its spillover effects will likely be in the thousands as U.S. incompetence in the face of one unconventional, asymmetric threat amplifies the harm from another unconventional, asymmetric threat.  Though the second is not man-made, the increase in the damage it will do is.

America’s Own COVID-19 Failures Mirror Its Failures in Fighting Nontraditional Threats

The issues surrounding the conflicts in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria were complicated and difficult to understand, and many Americans preferred moving on and forgetting.  After all, most Americans could live their lives and not be affected by the nature of unconventional, asymmetric warfare in a distant land.  But the unconventional, asymmetric threats posed by coronavirus, pandemics in general, biowarfare, and bioterrorism are not something from which Americans can conveniently shrink away: they are dangerous to us here at home all over the country, not just a small portion of volunteer military personnel deployed thousands of miles away or one city or several targeted in a particular al-Qaeda/ISIS-style “normal” terrorist attack.  Thus, the approach that has created a pattern of failure for America regarding unconventional, asymmetric threats in the past is even more inappropriate, problematic, and unacceptable for our present pandemic and similar biothreats.

Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, our leaders early on projected a supreme level of confidence and a belief in total victory even as they understood little about the nature of the threats they faced and what would be required to actually come out on top.  As these conflicts unfolded in their earlier phases, the political leaders initiating and running our military involvement never communicated to the public how truly difficult, open-ended, and indefinite our missions could or would be.  Because of these characterizations, proper resourcing was often a huge problem, especially given the tendencies to downplay the challenges we faced in these conflicts.  Instead, what we were told was that victory was usually just around the corner.  Furthermore, by focusing on short-term accomplishments for the sake of trying to boost public opinion, they very accomplishments themselves were made shallower and more likely to depress public opinion over time since they were more likely to come undone.  In the end, this meant that relatively short-term, technically successful increases in military deployments—ones leaders signaled ahead of time would be short-term and the goal of which was to improve security and stability enough for politics on-the-ground to move significantly in the right direction and not backslide—were always going to have a risk of history repeating itself just after or not long after the shorter-term surges; when these deployments’ effects wore off (or, even worse, the deployment itself failed to have the desired effect), it would be time for another deployment, with new deployments increasing frustration for a public that had been told we were “winning” and, over time, damaging that public’s willingness to support our military efforts as well as the Confidence of our local allies so crucial to the fight. 

Tragically, that is what happened in both of the major wars al-Qaeda sucked America into, with the same man (Gen. Petraeus) leading roughly the same surge strategy in both countries—first in Iraq, then later in Afghanistan—but the eventual hoped-for political resolutions never coming from local actors, who, having seen America’s inconsistency and mistakes up close, were more interested in sectarian and tribal agendas to bolster their positions than either allowing the U.S. to claim victory or making concessions necessary for multi-ethnic, religiously pluralistic territories to truly come together under one flag.

At the end of Invisible Armies, his seminal history on guerrilla warfare, Max Boot presents a series of major lessons from his study. One is that “most insurgencies are long-lasting; attempts to win a quick victory backfire”: 

The fact that low-intensity conflict tends to be “long, arduous and protracted,” in the words of Sir Robert Thompson, can be a source of frustration for both sides, but attempts to short-circuit the process to achieve a quick victory usually backfire.  The United States tried to do just that in the early years of the Vietnam and Iraq wars by using its conventional might to hunt down insurgents in a push for what John Paul Vann rightly decried as “fast, superficial results.”  It was only when the United States gave up hopes of quick victory, ironically, that it started to get results by implementing the tried-and-true tenets of population-centric counterinsurgency.  In Vietnam, it was already too late, but in Iraq the patient provision of security came just in time.

A particularly seductive version of the “quick win” strategy is to try to eliminate the insurgency’s leadership. …there are just…many examples where leaders were eliminated but the movement went on, sometimes stronger than ever—as both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda in Iraq did. High-level “decapitation” strategies work best when a movement is weak organizationally and focused around a cult of personality. Even then leadership targeting is most effective if integrated into a broader counterinsurgency effort designed to separate the insurgents from the population. If conducted in isolation, leadership raids are about as effective as mowing the lawn; the targeted organization can usually regenerate itself.

I have literally lost track of how many times the number-two or number-whatever leader of al-Qaeda or an affiliate or ISIS was proudly announced as killed by the U.S. (often from a drone strike), and I remember that political leaders and whichever-Administration spokespeople were usually quite eager to broadcast this as some sort of major accomplishment or an indication that things were going well even when they clearly were not.  The emphasis our government places on this tactic from a public-relations perspective when considering its ineffectiveness betrays that eagerness to present the public with quick fixes to complex problems that has so hampered our efforts in unconventional, asymmetric warfare.

Another lesson of Boot’s is that “conventional tactics don’t work against an unconventional threat”: 

Regular soldiers often assume that they will have no difficulty besting ragtag fighters who lack the firepower or discipline of a professional fighting force.  Their mindset was summed up by General George Decker, U.S. Army chief of staff from 1960 to 1962, who said, “Any good soldier can handle guerrillas.”  The Vietnam War and countless other conflicts have disproven this bromide. Big-unit, firepower-intensive operations snare few guerrillas and alienate many civilians.  To defeat insurgents, soldiers must take a different approach that focuses not on chasing insurgents but on securing the population.  This is the difference between “search and destroy” and “clear and hold.”  The latter approach is hardly pacifistic.  It too requires the application of violence and coercion but in carefully calibrated and intelligently targeted doses.  As an Israeli general told me, “Better to fight terror with an M-16 than an F-16.”

In this sense, too often we have favored the F-16, the metaphor for heavy firepower and advanced technology, including drones, missiles, and bombers, as a substitute for long-term policy, and, indeed, one of Boot’s lessons is that “technology has been less important in guerrilla war than in conventional war,” since

all guerrilla and terrorist tactics, from suicide bombing to hostage taking and roadside ambushes, are designed to negate the firepower advantage of conventional forces.  In this type of war, technology counts for less than in conventional conflict.  Even the possession of nuclear bombs, the ultimate weapon, has not prevented the Soviet Union and the United States from suffering ignominious defeat at guerrilla hands.  To the extent that technology has mattered in low-insurgency conflicts, it has often been the nonshooting kind.  As T. E. Lawrence famously said, “The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.”  A present-day rebel might substitute “the Internet” for “the printing press,” but the essential insight remains valid.

In an interview, Boot also notes our amnesia with these types of conflicts, how

this is a recurring problem, that armies do not like fighting guerrilla wars. They regard it as being beneath them, because they don’t regard guerrillas as being worthy enemies. Unfortunately, they keep getting forced into these guerrilla wars and what normally happens is they do learn how to fight after a period of trial and error, and after suffering costly defeats. But then as soon as they leave that war behind, they tend to forget what they’ve learned.

Former U.S. Army Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek—an old professor of mine in a class I took in Liberia, studying the United Nations peacekeeping mission there—perfectly summed up our failures in these conflicts in an article for Foreign Policy:

The phase-four [post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction] fates of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom [the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, respectively] were due more to the sins of omission than of commission.  The U.S. government, in its haste to do in months what takes years, threw billions at hearts-and-minds boondoggles and into ministries yielding corruption, roads to nowhere, and teacher-less schools, among other counterproductive outcomes.  The vast waste has led to the current conventional wisdom that development, coded as “nation-building,” doesn’t work.  Of course it doesn’t, if you don’t do it right.

(In a way that should offer us no consolation whatsoever, it is worth noting that a large part of his article was demonstrating how ISIS was far worse at phase four than we were).

As then-President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Jessica Tuchman Mathews wrote about the Iraq surge in late 2007, “for America’s larger strategic interests, buying more time to continue the same strategy can achieve nothing. To do so is to ask American troops to fight to create breathing space for a corpse.”  In the short-term, that was not the case: the gains made in security from the surge were significant and improved and lasted over the next few years, but beyond that, it is impossible to deny that the political breakthroughs the surge was designed to encourage did not materialize nearly enough and that all the security successes came undone between the actions of Maliki and ISIS by 2014.  And unfortunately, Matthews’s quote reverberates far beyond Iraq and can sum up so many of our strategic failures in the era after World War II.

Our leaders were simply just not honest about what we were up against or did not know themselves, and, as a result, the public never really grasped what was going on and why things went the way they did.  When the productive measures were taken, they would often be too little and/or too late, with far more death and destruction happening in the long-run as a result.  As a society and a nation, we failed to properly address these threats, at great cost for ourselves and others.  Shorter-term commitments were advertised as quick fixes that were really just false fantasies, increasing and extending the pain and perhaps dooming us to repeat ourselves in wasteful, frustrating cycles that left us demoralized, diminished, and depleted.


If reading this, you are asking yourself if this sounds familiar and eerily current somehow, well, yes, it should, as our response to the unconventional coronavirus pandemic fits frighteningly and maddeningly all too well—even exactly—into these patterns and obviously so.  You can practically substitute “coronavirus” for “Iraq” or “Vietnam” and the same analysis would often apply.

When confronting potentially difficult and long struggles, yes, there is something to be said for optimism and a can-do spirit, but not being straight-up with the American people about the potential costs, pitfalls, and durations of major threats—whether pandemics or insurgencies—sets America up to have little appetite or commitment when things turn out much tougher than advertised and also erodes our government’s overall credibility and our trust in, and willingness to listen to, it.  These combine to set us up for failure and far more painful struggles because we do not set ourselves up with the right approach in the beginning, and, as we know with so much in life, starting off on the wrong foot only makes everything that comes after that much more difficult.  False hope births a false sense of security and only makes us more vulnerable, whether we are talking about our soldiers in Iraq or our citizens being out in public catching coronavirus, unafraid of a spreading pandemic because leaders did not signify the appropriate level of concern people should have by not ordering lockdowns early.

Now, because of early missteps, our experience with COVID-19 is going to look more like the Iraq War than the Gulf War.  Therefore, as we try to overcome this threat, understanding our past missteps and failures against unconventional, asymmetric threats is crucial.

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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