Sebastian Gorka: America and Irregular Warfare

America and Irregular Warfare
(Sebastian Gorka, August 28, 2013)

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About the speaker

Dr. Sebastian Gorka is former Deputy Assistant and Strategist to the President (2017) and author of the best-selling book, Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War. His new book is Why We Fight: Recovering America’s Will to Win.

Former Kokkalis Fellow at Harvard, he has taught at Georgetown, was Associate Dean at National Defense University and held the distinguished chair of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University.

Sebastian was born in the UK to parents who escaped Communism during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. He is an internationally recognized authority on issues of national security, irregular warfare, terrorism and democratization, having worked in government and the private and NGO sectors in Europe and the United States.

After September the 11th 2001, he spent four years on the faculty of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center in Germany and has been involved in the training and education of 1,600+ counterterrorism, special forces and intelligence officers and still teaches at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (Fort Bragg), home of the Green Berets. He has briefed the CIA, DIA, ODNI, the US Navy SEALs, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the President. 


Sebastian Gorka:

My area of interest is the intersection of grand strategy and non-state actors, so if you’re expecting a lecture on the strategy of Iran or China, you’re in the wrong room. I’m interested in understanding groups like Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, AQAM, AQIP, how they think, what their strategy is, what their strategic culture is, and how to destroy it.

What I’m going to do today I’m going to give you a summary of what is usually a 15-week course on the anti-threat doctrine of Al Qaeda. I usually get three hours to do this. Now, I’ve got two hours to do this, so with seatbelts on, I’ll be quick. We’ll have a break in the middle. Please stop me if at any point there are some issues you want me to clarify.

Before I say anything, I am required to make the following statement. Nothing you’re about to hear necessarily represents the views of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency. Hopefully, in the future it might. I was checking if you guys were awake.

Alright, so in good PowerPoint tradition, DOD tradition, what I’ll do is I’ll give you the whole lecture on the next slide. So I’ll tell you everything I want to tell you on one slide, then I’ll talk for two hours, then I’ll remind you of what I just told you. So, if you had one cookie too many, then pay attention for five minutes and you’ll get the message.

So, what’s the message? Very simply, the first thing is that twelve years into this war, we still do not adequately understand the enemy and that’s a problem. You can, in this city, DC, you can go to half a dozen events every day where you’ll have scholars, practitioners like yourselves, academics, policy wonks argue about who’s the enemy, what’s al Qaeda. We’re in the twelfth year in the war and we’re still debating it. That would be like in 1944, arguing over who Hitler is and what the Third Reich is. If we didn’t do it then, why are we doing it now? We’ll talk about that in a second.

The second bullet I’ll explain and unpack a little bit later but I’ll just give you the one sentence cliff notes now. In the last twelve years, what we can see in the military art of Al Qaeda and associate movements is a shift from a Guevarist conceptualization of irregular warfare, focoist concept of irregular warfare, to a Maoist one. The enemy is learning and they are drawing the right conclusions from events such as the Arab Spring. I’ll unpack that as we go along.

Thirdly, we’ve got to stop seeing war the way Clausewitz understood it to be, as something functional. Clausewitz was a master of strategy but what was he writing about? He was writing about countries fighting countries. Right? That’s what his book is about. It’s about understanding how a government goes to war with another government. That’s not our problem today. Our problem is primarily non-state actors and they do not follow Clausewitz.

Penultimately, and this is very, very difficult for us to do in DOD is we’ve got to stop obsessing on the kinetic. You guys are masters of the kinetic, right? I’m sure you all are very proud of your shock groups on range 37, right? You know how to apply force very accurately. That is a great thing. That is a very important thing. However, the enemy is not just about kinetic victory. They can do things in the non-Kinetic, indirect domain that could be just as harmful to the United States and her Constitution and we need to appreciate that. We need to focus. We need to stop focusing predominately on the kinetic attack.

And lastly, we really have to understand the enemy threat doctrine of Al Qaeda. Yeah? If you’ve studied the Cold War, one of the marker points for the beginning of the Cold War is George Kennan’s Long Telegram. Right? The three thousand word, classified cable he wrote from Moscow back to DC, explaining what is the Soviet Union and what they want. We still don’t have an equivalent for George Kennan’s Long Telegram, explaining in just a couple thousand words what is the enemy’s strategic culture, what’s their threat doctrine, and how to defeat it and that’s a problem.

Okay, so, that was my lecture. Did you enjoy it? Okay, so let’s unpack it a little bit. Let’s look at the approach we have had in the last twelve years.

Oh, last point, just to make you guys feel good about your future career: irregular warfare is key to the future. Irregular warfare will not go away whatever big green believes, whatever the five-sided playpen would want you to believe, conventional, large, tank-on-tank warfare is not the future. Irregular warfare, UW, COIN, CT, that is going to keep us very busy for the next few decades.


So strategy. What have we been doing? You have all seen this, right, the famous McChrystal slide that was paid for out of your taxpayer dollars, my taxpayer dollars, your parents’ taxpayer dollars given to a very expensive British consulting company to explain what is going on in Afghanistan. Yeah, when General McChrystal briefed this, he of course famously said, ‘Once we understand this slide, we will have won the war.’ This kind of product is the evidence of why we are doing so poorly because this is the antithesis, the opposite of strategy. The idea that that helps anybody do their job in Afghanistan is an insult, but that is portrayed as the state of the art in strategic analysis.

So what is a better way or what is another way of looking at our approach?

Let me just tell you something first about why I say irregular warfare is the future. This one visual is from an article Dave Kilcullen and I published two years ago in Joint Forces Quarterly. It is based on a very interesting database called the Correlates of War (COW) database. That is an unclassified, university database that has crunched all the data from every conflict, every war since the time of Napoleon; when it started, when it ended, who was involved, how many casualties, and so on. They put it into one database.

The Reality of Warfare

We tried to represent that database with one visual, just to draw out the main, critical conclusions. And if you take the box, the large box, as all conflicts for the last two hundred years, that box represents 460 wars. Okay, so there are 460 wars analyzed since Napoleon. What is really interesting is if you categorize all of those wars, and what we find is that little red box up here. Less than twenty percent of all conflicts for the last two hundred years has been state on state, has been conventional, has been wars like Gulf One, like the Korean War, like World War I [and] World War II, governments fighting governments.

More than eighty percent of all wars for the last to hundred years have been states fighting non-state actors, as we have been doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, or non-state actors fighting each other, like tribal warfare. Bottom line: more than eighty percent of all wars for the last to hundred years have been irregular. Which means what? Which means DoD should call irregular warfare conventional, regular, yeah, but do not hold your breath on that. As long as you guys know the reality, that is enough for me.

Strategy 101

Okay, so that is just the data. Before we take a look at the strategic approach that we should have, let us just do a little 101 on strategy. Two things that I like to refresh memories on. Of course, if you ever mention the word strategy in a fancy cocktail party here in Georgetown, who are the two dead people you have to be able to quote? You have to be able to quote the good General Carl Clausewitz himself, right, and Sun Tzu. Yeah? Those are the two masters of strategy.

So what did they say? Sun Tzu, the author of that great little book, The Art of War, is most famous for saying what? If you wish to win in war, you must… What is the most famous quote of Sun Tzu? If you want to win, know your enemy, right? That is the quote, know your enemy. If you buy the book (and I hope you have it, it is a little book, you can read it in a couple of hours), he did not actually say that. What did he say? He said if you want to win, you must know the enemy and yourself, yeah? The full quote is, ‘If you know your enemy, you win half your engagements. If you know who you are or why you are fighting, you will also win half of your battles. If you know both who you are and the enemy, you will win one hundred battles out of one hundred battles.’ However, that is a bit too long for a CNN soundbite, and as a result it always gets boiled down to know your enemy.

My observation after many years of working with people like yourselves is that we have trouble with both sides of this. Not only do we have problems understanding the enemy, we are not really sure what we are doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. It was pretty clear back in October of ’01, but what are we doing there now? We went there to do what? What was the mission set in October of ’01?

Audience member:

Al Qaeda.

Sebastian Gorka:

Yeah, destroy the facilities of that organization, which executed a mass casualty attack on U.S. soil. We pretty much did that by December with three hundred guys and twenty thousand Northern Alliance [fighters], but we stayed there for another eleven years. Why? And next year, what has the White House said we are potentially going to do? Right, leave. Have we achieved the goal? Is Al Qaeda never going to come back? Is it destroyed? It seems that we have problems with both sides of that equation.

Moving on to the Prussian General, what did he say? One of the most famous sentences associated with Clausewitz is that war is the continuation of politics by other means, right, you have heard that. War is politics with guns. When you have run out of everything else, you reach for the M4. Okay, that is what he said, that is why he is famous, but he said something else before that. He said the first responsibility of a leader [or] of a commander is to understand the nature of the war he is about to engage in. The primary responsibility of the commander is to understand the nature of the war [he is] about to engage in because if you get this wrong, it really does not matter how good your team is, how good your training is, how good your equipment is. If you are fighting the wrong war, if you are playing checkers, and he is playing chess, it is going to be very hard to win.

Remember, for its first two-and-a-half years in Iraq, what were you forbidden to say we were doing in Iraq by the Secretary of Defense? COIN, yeah. We were forbidden from stating officially that we are actually facing an insurgency. The fight was officially against foreign fighters, and it was a CT mission. It took us two-and-a-half years to actually admit what the nature of the beast was, that we were not just fighting foreign fighters, we were fighting Iraqis, whether they were Baathists that we fired from the military, whether they were Sunni militia or Shia militia, we had to recognize who they were. You cannot beat an insurgency if you are doing CT. That is the kind of thing that I am talking about. Okay, so just a little one on one on where we are at on strategy.

US Strategy in Bumper Stickers

I became an American citizen last year, and one of the things I realized soon after is that we Americans love our bumper stickers. If you cannot crunch it down onto a twelve by four inch piece of plastic, it cannot be important, so what I decided to do is just a bumper sticker review of the last twelve years. What has been the strategic approach of the United States to 9/11 in bumper stickers. And this is what I came up with.

Global War on Terror (GWOT)

First, of course, we have right after 9/11, the Commander in Chief declared a global war against Al Qaeda, the Global War on Terror (GWOT). We could be here until midnight discussing the problems with that bumper sticker, that acronym, the legal problems, the strategic communications problems, the diplomatic ones. The fact is we had to replace it. A few years into the war, as a result, the Pentagon came up with a new bumper sticker and we replaced GWOT with Long War.

Long War

Is Long War an improvement? Probably not. Here we said we are in a global war against terrorism. Were we really? Were we in a global war against terrorism? Were we fighting all kinds of terrorists? Well, it was regional, it was focused on certain areas. Was it also fighting all kinds of terrorists? Did of your colleagues from Bragg deploy to fight Basque separatists in northern Spain? No. Eco-terrorists in the Canadian redwoods? No, so we had problems with the first one, and then we replaced it with this. And is that a better description? It tells you that the fight is going to be long. Does it tell you how long? Does it tell you against who? No, so not exactly an improvement.

Countering Ideological Support for Terrorism (CIST)

Then in about the sixth year of the war, the Bush administration came up with a very interesting new bumper sticker, not at the strategic level, not at the national level, but at the sub-strategic inside DOD, and that is CIST, not the medical condition but Countering Ideological Support for Terrorism. CIST was the DOD’s recognition after about five-and-a-half years that there is a non-kinetic part of this war, that we can go around hunting high value targets for as long as you like, but if you do not start attacking the ideology that helps Al Qaeda recruit, we will be doing whack-a-mole for decades. And that is how CIST was born. However, whilst it became an official acronym in DOD, it did not replace the Long War.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

Lastly, at the tail end of the second Bush Administration, this is not well understood, a new strategic bumper sticker was born to replace GWOT, and that is what we are currently in now, CVE. That acronym was also used by the Obama Administration, and it was fully endorsed, so as of – what are we today, April 10, 2013, the official bumper sticker for what we are doing is countering violent extremism instead of GWOT, and within that the military part of CVE is OCO, overseas contingency operations.

What do you gentlemen think of those as strategic replacements to describe what we are doing against Al Qaeda? Better? Worse? Accurate? Inaccurate? You have got to have an opinion because that is supposed to be driving your jobs. That is the big picture explanation for what you are doing, whether you are doing it as a training team in Africa, whether you are doing a DA action, that is falling under a strategic banner that is CVE and OCO. Do you think that is a good banner?

I always ask my officers on the first day of class [to] tell me in English what OCO really means because nobody talks about ‘overseas contingency operations.’ What does that mean in English?

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