Brave New War – John Robb (2007)

Brave New War - John Robb

John Robb’s short book “Brave New War” might be seen by some as an instructional guide for terrorists (but Robb argues that they already know this stuff!). His main premise is that the new ‘global guerrillas’ are small autonomous cells that are getting more and more savvy about attacking infrastructure to keep a state disrupted (electric grids, oil pipelines, etc.), without having the goal of taking over the state. This makes their efforts have huge payback on time and money invested, and he fears that these cells are the future we face; a future that our centralized and massive defense infrastructure cannot hope to counter. As he puts it in the book, “What if warfare was reinvented and nobody bothered to tell the Pentagon?”

Drawing upon ideas from open source software development, emergence, Taleb & black swans, and more, Robb spends a portion of the book looking at Iraq, both the Gulf War and the current engagement. His estimates of the number of potential ‘guerrillas’ in Iraq now far exceeds the official estimates of the U.S. military, and going through the numbers tends to support his case (while throwing severe doubt on what the ‘surge’ can potentially achieve).

It’s a stimulating read that will make you re-think the ‘war on terror’.

Wired Blogs has a short interview with Robb.

A short audio interview with Robb is available online at the Council on Foreign Relations site.

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  • Jim  On July 5, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    Have not read Robb but have the following question from your comments. It is certainly true that the new ‘global guerrellas’ are savvy cells without the goal of taking over the state, but the conclusion you (&Robb?) reach is that they cannot be countered with conventional warfare. This does not follow unless the cells are randomly distributed among societies, ideologies, etc. That is not the case!

    Therefore the following statement:

    “…a future that our centralized and massive defense infrastructure cannot hope to counter.”

    is not true. What I mean is, all these terrorist cells now have one thing in common – Gordon Brown has now made this verboten in Britain to his shame – but they are all Muslim! Do you agree?

    Our massive defense infrastructure can counter radical Muslim ideology and the surge is working much better than the MSM lets us know. We will know more come September. If terrorism continues to be “Muslim” and enough terrorism is executed to upset and awaken the West, then I suggest we could easily stop this ideology by unleashing our power without the ‘politically correct’ constraints it has now.

    Your reaction?

  • Curt  On July 9, 2007 at 9:28 am

    I think Robb’s arguments are largely focused on Iraq, and as you say, we’ll see what the report on the surge has to say in September. I don’t know how well it’s working, but things I’ve seen seem to indicate that our benchmarks for success are not being reached (will we move our goalposts?). I do think Robb’s analysis makes many valid points worth considering.

    The situation in Great Britain is different, of course, and fortunately they seem to have some success at finding the terrorists in their midst. I would argue that it’s not so much the ‘massive defense infrastructure’ but more internal intelligence and policing that is doing the work there. Could they be more successful by doing more profiling? Perhaps so.

    But your line on ‘unleashing our power’ scares me, frankly. Exactly what powers do you want to unleash? What will be the worldwide impact of such an unleashing? How many innocents would be claimed by such actions? In any case I’m not convinced that such action would ‘easily’ solve the problem.

  • Jim  On July 11, 2007 at 11:57 am

    You don’t address my point that all “cells” are Muslim. Or do you not agree?

    If they are all Muslim, and continue to be in the future – and I see no reason to think other ideologies are going to take the same tack – and they continue their terrorists tactics until they “upset” the West, then our massive defense infrastructure can solve the problem by eliminating their control centers – mosques, cities, nations – until they either wake up or are eliminated. This would not be possible with “random” cells.

    Please don’t assume I am asking for immediate mobilization towards this goal. As W continually points out – and it is not heard – this is a very long term conflict, and hopefully the massive retaliation will never become necessary.

  • Curt  On July 11, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Without doubt the main terrorist cells that the U.S. is concerned with are Muslim. In the whole world situation, there are other terrorist groups – on Robb’s blog he writes today of attacks in Mexico, by revolutionaries there, using tactics that Robb describes.

    I am skeptical about the effectiveness of traditional defense powers, even if ‘control centers’ are known (which I also question – just how good is our intelligence?). Destroy mosques and these folks can quickly move to private homes, for example. Modern communications & the internet make all sorts of things possible.

    Our forces are very effective at certain kinds of battles, don’t get me wrong. But I think it’s based on an essentially WWII way of thinking that is a bit out-moded for many situations we face today. I think the first Gulf War showed exactly what we are good at (echoed in the first month or so of the current Iraq war). But the model has severe limitations (in effectiveness, not in firepower).

    Destruction of cities and nations goes way beyond simple issues of ‘political incorrectness’ in my book. I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that, because I think it will cause massive suffering without solving any of the core problems.

    While I believe there are effective techniques to fight these folks (kind of ironically, I think Rumsfeld was pushing in this direction – smaller, more mobile forces – yet our forces are now stuck in a ‘nation-building’ situation that they may not be very well suited for),

    I think one also needs to try to figure out what’s driving them, what’s creating this trend. Simply thinking you can ‘stomp it out’ strikes me as incorrect.

  • Jim  On July 11, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    I hear the ghost of Neville Chamberlain in your last paragraph.

    Your penultimate paragraph I agree with totally. But my contention would be that we are in “nation-building” not by choice, but by necessity. I know we disagree on this, but we are there because of the U.N. approval and quite broad agreement among our allies. Rumsfeld, unfortunately, is not there due to unending harrassment from the left!

    As W keeps trying to tell us, an island of democracy in the dangerous middle eastern sea, will do more to effect the radical Muslims than anything else we can do at this time. I am sure the plan is to later continue on Rumsfeld’s tack to improve our forces ability to fight as Robb points out.

    Finally, all other terrorist groups that I am aware of are within a particular country. I do not think it is fair to bring them into the discussion. If I am wrong, please point out the comparable groups to Al-Queda.

  • Curt  On July 12, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    Well, the Neville Chamberlain reference confirms my point that we’re too often stuck in WWII thinking! Kind of a low blow to compare my comments to the Great Appeaser, but I can take it. 🙂

    (As a side note, while in retrospect Chamberlain’s action seems foolish and misguided, I doubt that it was so clear at the time. We all know what Hitler turned out to be capable of. But he hadn’t done all those things at that point, and it’s also unclear what would have happened had a stand been taken at that time in 1938. Would it simply have moved the war years up a bit? Would a completely different course have been taken? Who can say…)

    As you state, the reasons we got into Iraq don’t matter so much in terms of the discussion of what to do now. And I certainly don’t have any great answers about what to do… (My hunch, actually, is that some sort of splitting apart of Iraq into three sections is what may finally happen, but that’s neither here nor there).

    But – to think that there is no value in trying to understand the motivations of the various groups in Iraq strikes me as a serious strategic error. I’m completely amazed when I read things about government people (both in the Administration and in Congress) who seem to not know anything about Sunnis and Shias (for example), yet seem to think they know what to do over there. To frame the situation in Iraq as the U.S. against Al Qaida is just a total over-simplification. All sorts of groups are fighting each other and the U.S. forces (this is part of the point that Robb is making in ‘Brave New War’). If we’re going to try to create a stable situation there, we’ve got to do our best to understand some history and some motivations, and then use the most effective tools at our disposal. (When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail – I propose a more sophisticated approach!).

    As for Rumsfeld, you make it sound like he was undone by some “vast left-wing conspiracy”. I disagree. While he had some interesting ideas, in my opinion he was a smug, camera-hogging guy who liked to hear himself talk (note that Gates keeps a much lower profile), and he seemed be best at bureaucratic CYA stuff to avoid personal accountability. He kept the troop levels low, he presided over three years where we didn’t seem to alter strategy at all, and in the end he was such a liability that Bush had to let him go. Just my opinion!

    Lastly, I bring in the Mexico story because (again, going back to Robb), there are various groups out there who understand that they can do serious disruption with very few resources. To the extent that they end up disrupting things like oil pipelines, it has an impact on the U.S., even if the groups are not ‘global’ organizations like Al-Qaida. I agree, though, that they are outside the scope of Iraq.

  • Jim  On July 14, 2007 at 10:44 am

    If I didn’t think you could take it and if I didn’t have the greatest respect for your intellect I would not have made that statement!

    I don’t think it was a “low blow” and I think that remembering WWII and perhaps even using WWII thinking is a very positive thing. To paraphrase a very famous quotation: THOSE WHO FORGET THE PAST ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT. I don’t want to repeat WWII.

    I know what is driving them: they want to destroy the West and set up a world wide caliphate. This is what they say! Why is it so hard to understand? (Side Note: I believe Hitler had said similar things by the time Chamberlain made his concessions – I am going to research this to confirm.)

    You changed the subject in the last response to what the Iraqis are thinking. If you re-read the comment I reacted to the subject was world wide terrorism. I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to understand the Iraqis, and our politicians and the MSM definitely do not.

  • Curt  On July 15, 2007 at 9:47 am

    It can be hard sometimes to keep all the subjects straight! But indeed my original comment about ‘understanding the motivations’ did indeed have to do with the Iraqis (and the Middle East in general), not Al Qaida. I agree that their intentions are clear, and they’ve taken actions that prove the point.

    On the subject of history, I take your point. But – there’s a lot of history to consider (for instance, the British experience in Iraq, various engagements in Afghanistan, etc. etc.). One must try to apply significant lessons from history, while understanding that the current situation is bound to be unique in certain ways. And one can make the mistake of fighting the last war (Maginot line for example).

    To sum up my thoughts about the situation in Iraq:
    1. The U.S. seems to have (at least) two goals – to defeat Al Qaida/terrorists, and to set up a stable democracy of some sort.
    2. Al Qaida forces are operating there, but there are also a lot of other battles going on – Sunnis vs. Shias, various criminal groups out for private gain, foreign terrorists, etc. I just saw a report that indicated that 45% of foreign suicide bombers have come from Saudi Arabia, but of course other foreign influences are present as well.
    3. According to some polls at least, only a minority of the people in Iraq want us there, and think we are helping the situation. In any event, support is not overwhelming.
    4. To the extent that we do our best to fight Al Qaida, it may in fact hinder progress on the goal of a stable democracy. By that I mean that our presence, our activites, the collateral damage, etc. are be likely to be creating more enemies.
    5. As Robb talks about – unlike WWII, where we were fighting a large state army – we are now fighting with small cells that operate semi-autonomously. Thus it does not take huge numbers of people to continue to frustrate efforts to stabilize things.

    Feel free to object on any of these points, but that’s my sense of things. The dynamics could change, there could be some tipping point, but it’s not at all clear to me.

    What to do about it? Like I said, I don’t see any easy answers. I don’t think we’re going to leave any time soon, so the question is on what basis and at what levels do we stay? If we were to draw down troops, what are the consequences? If we stay at current levels, what are the costs?

  • Jim  On July 17, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    The comment I was reacting to with the reference was you post of July llth where the subject was definitely world wide terrorism, not Iraq, and you feeling that we need to ‘figure out what is driving them.’ By the way I have researched Neville and Adolf and will give you my view of the timeline of events leading up to Neville being replaced by Winston later.

    I agree with your 1 and 2. 3 is open to debate. I hear many different reports and the ones from the right say they want us, and from the left say they don’t. I put most weight on interviews I hear on Conservative Radio with soldiers who are serving or served in Iraq and they seem to think the Iraqis want us their. I heard Jim Webb say that only 35% of serving soldiers in Iraq support the effort, and I believe this in incorrect since re-enlistments are at historic highs in many services.

    4 is always a risk, but I see us as having no choice. We ravaged much of Japan, Germany, South Korea and Vietnam and time seems to heal these wounds. Sidebar: I think you and the left are overreacting to the harm we do with collateral damage, assuming the goal is achieved.

    5 is the problem, but I think we realize this and will take the appropriate actions as you mentioned Rumsfeld has started.

    Our difference seems to be perception of how important the ‘problem’ is. This obviously is not easy to resolve through persuasion. But it is fun to try!

  • Curt  On July 19, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Indeed, even if one can agree on a set of facts, there is still the matter of interpretation. You are hopeful, and I hope you are right.

    Several issues I find troubling:
    1. While as you mention, Bush has said this is a long war (referring more to the overall effort rather than Iraq alone, I think), but there are times when this seems (in my view) to lead to a certain complacency about achieving results. It seemed to take the 2006 election to produce some benchmarks on results (3.5 years in), and my guess is that the September conclusion will be that the surge needs more time. How much time is anybody’s guess…

    2. I think even if the U.S. gets better on #5 above, I think that only addresses the military portion. There are a host of issues that are region-wide, and as noted terrorists are arriving from other countries. I often find Tom Friedman to be wide of the mark, but I thought his column Thursday made a good point, while discussing the notion that we need a diplomatic strategy as well as a military strategy. He wrote: “And in Iraq, we’ve never had any leverage. The Iraqis believe that Mr. Bush will never walk away, so they have no incentive to make painful compromises.”

    So I’m just not convinced that we’ve got an effective strategy in place, and it seems like Bush is already settled with the notion that little will change while he’s still in office. But I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

  • Jim  On July 23, 2007 at 9:10 am

    I agree with your 1) and 2), but I offer the following analysis:

    Germany – U.S. military presence for last 61 years
    Japan – U.S. military presence for last 61 years
    Korea – U.S. military presence for last 55 years

    So Bush’s action is not unprecedented.

    But this is a different situation! Although if you read about the situations above all were not as smooth as silk for the first 5 years, none of them had a world-wide insurgency using their country as a battle ground in order to set up a Caliphate.

    I don’t think anyone knows what the strategy should be. And I strongly believe much of the anti-Iraq feeling is rooted in the 2000 election and the visceral hatred of Bush. That is no way to build a strong country!

    I hope this changes after the next election!

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