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These are not the sunniest times in the U.S. foreign policy and defense communities. How could they be, given that the United States has recently fought two excruciatingly long wars that have left our adversaries stronger than they were when the wars began, despite the loss of 7,000 American lives?
Meanwhile, the liberal world order America did so much to create out of the ashes of World War II seems to be under assault pretty much everywhere, including, ironically enough, from the White House in Washington, D.C. Relationships with European allies who helped build and sustain that order have been badly frayed by a self-indulgent president who is as disdainful of sound alliances as he is of sound advice.
Trump’s willful disregard of allies and penchant for strategic incoherence are hardly the only reason things have gone awry. A new book by the well-respected counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen goes far in explaining another one of the crucial developments responsible for the decline of American (and Western) strategic and military effectiveness.
In The Dragons and The Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, Kilcullen argues persuasively that while the United States has been mired down in forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our current and potential adversaries have gotten the jump on us.
His book offers readers a skillfully annotated road map of contemporary conflict, describing in clear, measured prose how and why the days of American strategic and military preeminence are now behind us. While the United States squandered its military resources since 9/11 in futile wars against Muslim jihadists and other insurgents, Beijing and Moscow studied America’s military strengths and weaknesses, as well as its many strategic mistakes. Both of these rising powers have rebuilt their militaries, and equally important, have devised formidable grand strategies to challenge U.S. dominance in their respective spheres of influence. China is using its enormous economic power to gain substantial political leverage over America’s Asian allies. Its revamped military already has the anti-access area-denial (A2-AD) capability to challenge the U.S. Navy in both the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Vladimir Putin, despite his nation’s anemic economic base, has run rings around the West in the geopolitical arena over the past few years, boldly reinserting Russia into the Middle East via the Syrian Civil War, and developing the most sophisticated hybrid warfare capabilities on the planet, in the eyes of many defense analysts.
What is “hybrid warfare?” It’s an approach to conflict that integrates conventional military operations seamlessly with political front movements, multi-media propaganda campaigns, fake news, cyber warfare, traditional diplomacy, and economic and military threats. When intervention beyond Russia’s borders is called for, Moscow likes to employ local proxies to create a veneer of legitimacy for its actions, as it did in the Crimea and is now doing in Ukraine.
Hybrid warfare, which blurs the line between peace and war, is nothing new. What is new is the skill and boldness with which Moscow has implemented it. Moscow’s deft exploitation of social media platforms and information warfare has sown confusion, conflict, and fear in the body politics of many Western nations, particularly the United States.
Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer who was both a participant in the war on terror and a long-standing adviser to American commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan (including General David Petraeus), divides the West’s adversaries into two groups. The dragons are the rising nation states—China and Russia—along with the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. The snakes include non-state actors of all stripes: terrorist groups, guerrilla insurgencies, proxy militias, and paramilitary organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, which began as an anti-Israel militia and blossomed over time into a powerful political party with its own army.
Kilcullen makes a strong case that in the ongoing effort to blunt the effectiveness of the Western way of war, “states and nonstate actors have learned from each other, so that today many of the most effective techniques used by nonstate armed groups draw on ideas and technology acquired from states [including of course the United States], while many successful state strategies are copies from non-state groups.”
The snakes have become both more elusive and more lethal by adapting relatively inexpensive commercial technologies with wide-ranging military applications, especially GPS satellite technologies, Google maps, and smart phones to strike at Western forces from greater distances and more precision. Many terrorist groups have also acquired advanced missile systems, drones, and other “conventional” western military hardware from Iran and elsewhere.
ISIS originally was one of a score of jihadist groups in Iraq and numbered only a few thousand hardcore fighters. Proclaiming its own rigidly intolerant, backward-looking version of Islam as the One True Religion and glorifying horrific acts of violence against defenseless infidels, ISIS was able to recruit 30,000 foreign fighters and more than double that number of Iraqis to do its bidding. Under the guidance of the elusive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group acquired enough conventional military hardware (including tanks and heavy artillery) and administrative expertise to establish a quasi-state in Iraq and Syria the size of Great Britain by 2014. It took a U.S.-led coalition five years to break ISIS’ hold over territory.
Now, just a year after the “Caliphate” surrendered its last bit of territory, the group is on the rise again.
The snakes, says Kilcullen, have learned a great deal the hard way: through a vast amount of combat experience, which speeds up the adaptation process considerably, in part by taking heavy, but inevitably replaceable, casualties. Combat, Kilcullen writes, “imparts instantaneous, uniquely indelible lessons that affect not only individuals but also organizations, tactics… and a host of norms and institutions that shape every aspect of how a military force operates.” He believes today’s nonstate combatants, broadly speaking, are much more capable than they were even a decade ago. I know of no serious student of the subject who would disagree.
By way of example, air supremacy had long been a given for the West in the global war on terror, yet our adversaries in Afghanistan and Iraq proved adept at mitigating its effects by operating in very small, semi-autonomous groups that shunned the use of detectable communications. Increasingly, these fighters operate in urban environments where they are able to disappear or maneuver through tunnels and passageways that are often invulnerable to air strikes. By sticking close to civilian populations, they have successfully exploited the West’s great sensitivity to “collateral damage.” Such groups, Kilcullen writes, use “a dynamic swarm of self-synchronized small groups, with lightly equipped, fast-moving irregular forces that operated in the shadows, staying below the detection threshold of our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (IRS) platforms, avoiding our major combat forces whenever possible, targeting the vulnerable populations and infrastructure we needed to protect, and attack or subverting our (often unreliable) local partners.”
Much like the Vietcong in the Vietnam War, America’s enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan pursued a protracted war strategy. Time was their great ally. They knew very well that the American people would lose patience with distant conflicts that were producing ambiguous results, at best. Like the Vietcong, the jihadists respected American conventional military power, but they were not overawed by it. And they recognized, as the Vietcong did, the startling inability of American policymakers to develop strategies that coherently integrated military and political operations in a part of the world they little understand.
Al Qaeda, America’s initial enemy in the Global War on Terror, remains a vital and active organization 18 years after the United States and its allies ejected the group from its bases in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The guts were “torn out of the central structure” in the initial American campaign in 2001-2002, writes Kilcullen, but “the organization’s affiliates—in Yemen, Indonesia, East Africa, and Saudi Arabia—became more influential.” The core group “re-emerged as a propaganda hub and a center for guidance and targeting direction rather than an operational organization.” To strengthen itself, al Qaeda also went into the business of remote recruiting by exploiting other Western technologies: social media and the dark web.
For their part, both Russia and China have been assiduous students of American conventional military systems, as well as asymmetric warfare techniques, in which propaganda, cyber, and political warfare are used to sow conflict and confusion. Both nations have been willing to defy international law and international institutions to secure their foreign policy ends. They have gambled that while the West will protest vehemently, it will not react with force to their predations.
So far, they have guessed right. Beginning in 2013 China seized and militarized the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines challenged the seizure in the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, and the Court ruled in the Philippines’ favor in 2016. China has ignored the ruling, claiming, disingenuously, that the South China Sea has always belonged to the Chinese people.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimea drew fiery protests from the United States and its European allies. Sanctions were imposed, but no one today thinks the Crimea will be returned to Ukraine.
Iran, which has been engaged in a twilight conflict with the United States since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, is a nation-state that uses both proxy forces and asymmetrical warfare techniques that defense experts usually associate with non-state groups to achieve its foreign policy ends. It hasn’t done badly in its quest to reduce secular and Western influences in the Middle East. Its most capable proxy force, Hezbollah, has become a real thorn in Israel’s side, thanks to its arsenal of formidable rockets, missiles, and drones, all courtesy of Tehran. After the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, writes Kilcullen, “Hezbollah’s propaganda tools operated around the clock, spreading imagery that harmed Israel’s global reputation, mobilized the [the Lebanese Shia] diaspora, and helped generate international pressure for a ceasefire.”
In Iraq, irony of ironies, Iran has extensive political as well as military influence over the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, certainly more influence than the United States enjoys at the moment. Iran’s intelligence agents have co-opted the Iranian cabinet, pro-Iranian political parties exert substantial influence in the Parliament in Baghdad, and a cluster of Iraqi Shiite militias take orders not from Baghdad but from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Iraq and Iran are both populated largely by Shiite Muslims, and Tehran has skillfully exploited transnational Shiite loyalty to gain enormous sway over all aspects of Iraqi life.
The Dragons and the Snakes is an important contribution to the literature on contemporary warfare. Historians and defense analysts have written several hundred books about the “revolution in military affairs,” “fourth-generation warfare,” or “the new way of war” since the end of the Cold War. The vast majority of these books hold that technological innovation lies behind the sea-changes in modern warfare. Kilcullen’s book, like just a few others, is refreshingly different. It concerns the broadening of warfare, detailing the way conflicts between nations and groups are being increasingly carried out in what used to be considered “non-military” spheres of human interaction, such as politics, economics, and computer networks.
A distinctive feature of this “new” kind of warfare—if one can call it that—is that traditional battlefield dominance isn’t the big deal it used to be. A key lesson from the global war on terror, surely, is that superbly trained and armed soldiers with precision-guided munitions and state-of-the-art command and control systems cannot compensate for bone-headed, incoherent strategies, such as the ones offered up by recent American administrations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor can they build nations in the American image.
Of course, this was one of the most important lessons of the Vietnam War, but we keep forgetting that this is so, and making the same mistakes, because we are American and we are Exceptional. No wonder the U.S. foreign policy journals are awash these days with essays counseling greater restraint in setting goals and curbing our addiction to sending in the Marines. Given what’s happened to America in the greater Middle East over the past 19 years, restraint is surely the beginning of wisdom.
Kilcullen’s book is mainly about problems, not solutions, but he nevertheless concludes with some interesting comments on what the United States and the West might do to address this sorry state of affairs.
Like Andrew Bacevich—another former soldier—and a longish line of other distinguished scholars of foreign policy, Kilcullen sees the militarization of American foreign policy as a huge problem that needs to be addressed. He calls on America to pursue a strategy of “offshore balancing,” in which Washington would forgo nation-building, hang up its world-policeman helmet, and cease trying to dominate near-competitors like Russia or China. “Rather than dominating potential adversaries, our objectives can and should be much more modest: to prevent them from dominating us, and to do so at an acceptable and sustainable long-term cost.”
Hmm. That sounds like a good start.