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Asymmetric warfare

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This is a generic article on asymmetric warfare. The article at Asymmetric Warfare is badly named as it is a personal POV monopolizing namespace. This has been flagged as a dkosopedia:page name issue. Contribute to this article instead.


Symmetric warfare in Europe: from noble ransom to the Geneva Convention

So-called symmetric warfare is when both sides have more or less the same weapons and tactics. In World War II, for example, the German tanks, planes, and machine guns battled the Allied tanks, planes, and machine guns. In World War I, there were rapid innovations (field phones, serviced trenches, tanks, chemical weapons, air war) but each side quickly copied the other. In the American Civil War, blue and grey alike had cannons and rifles and cavalry. In a conventional symmetric war, armies take and hold territory, there's a front line, and it's not too hard to tell the difference between soldiers and civilians. The technological escalation available to one side roughly mirrors that available to the other, since both have similar population and industrial base. They also have similar ethical rules, because industrial states operate under a similar set of principles:

Brutal and destructive as it can be, symmetric warfare has become (to a certain extent) civilized. There are rules. Soldiers wear uniforms so that you can tell who they are rather than shooting everything that moves. Soldiers are treated like chess pieces; once captured they are removed from the board and kept safe until the end of the game - again possible since both sides have prisoner of war camps and control secure territory.

International agreements now also proscribe the use of indiscriminate weapons like poison gas or disease. These agreements, however, all arose after horrific outcomes of prior conflict. The 1920 Geneva Convention, for instance, formalized the rules after World War I because of infrequent but horrific breaches of protocol. For instance, the Germans executed many members of a captured Newfoundland unit that had foughtly particularly well.

The most reasonable way to view rules regarding the disposition of losers of conflicts is that the rules regarding noble ransom simply became extended to all the soldiers involved: everyone had the right to a certain degree of good treatment and to be returned in good order. Effectively, 20th century nation states agreed to ransom every soldier of the other side.

The Geneva Convention was an outcome of a long process of "chivalric" or "gentlemany" rules developed over centuries when warfare in Europe really was a kind of game focused on nobles. Wars centered on issues of little consequence to the average person: which brother would be king, whether your town sent tribute payments to Paris or to Vienna, and so on. If you were a civilian, you kept your head down, waited for the dust to settle, and then paid your taxes to the winner. Even soldiers were playing a kind of game. Some were mercenaries who fought under many different flags in the course of a career. Others (like my Alsatian ancestors) came from border provinces, and so owed their allegiance to whichever king had won the previous war. You did your job, but after the outcome was clear there was no sense getting yourself killed. And all nobles had an interest in keeping the peasant population high and productive.

When wars were fought over something that struck deeper - like the Crusades or the Catholic/Protestant wars of the 1600's - rules went out the window. The Thirty Years War, for example, depopulated entire regions of central Europe. 20th century wars tend to be fought against colonizing powers and their local allies or proxies. These have tended in general to be over 'something that struck deeper' than simply a change in the leadership. For instance, battles over what language the court system would be run in, or whether the children of a certain ethnicity or religion would be educated at all.

When losers don't quit

Asymmetric warfare happens when it's obvious who the winner of a symmetric war would be - maybe a symmetric war has already been fought and decisively won - but some core group on the losing side is not willing to give up and get on with life under the domination of the winner. If the winner is not committed to human rights or the Geneva Convention or has not returned all the prisoners from the losing side, obviously, it is not an option to "get on with life" with any quality, so the decision to fight might be reasonable.

Whatever the motives, they keep fighting: Replaying the game of civilized symmetric warfare would just get them slaughtered to no purpose, but the issues of the war are so important that they cannot simply accep defeat. And so they fight on - outside the game, without a state.

Asymmetric warriors don't wear uniforms and fight pitched battles. Rather than defending territory, they accept that the opposing force can go where it wants, killing and destroying at will. They hide among civilians, they hit and run, and they attack whatever targets their enemy values but has left undefended.

Often those targets are non-combatants, though they are quite often support personnel such as those at The Pentagon (only someone truly committed to propaganda could describe them as "civilians") or working in the economic or banking system at a high level, controlling the economy. While politicians make good targets sometimes, an assassination doesn't make the point that the entire population is vulnerable and also responsible for actions politicians take.

To the winners of the symmetric war (and all others who remain locked into the game mentality of symmetric warfare) the asymmetric warriors just look like "sore losers". By the logic that applies between nation-states that follow conventions and rule of law, if the asymmetric warriors were civilized and honorable, they would wear uniforms and face their opponents' soldiers on a battlefield - and get slaughtered like vermin. The asymmetric tactics - attacking civilians and running away from soldiers - look cowardly, even when they lead to certain death. And because the decisive war is already supposed to be over, an asymmetric attack looks like pointless destruction, killing for the sake of killing. This view is naive, obviously, as it assumes that submitting to the winner will result in an acceptable quality of life and respect for the rights of citizens of developed nations.

It is also naive in that sometimes the asymmetric warriors win.

How insurgents win

Asymmetric warfare works in a very specific but very common situation: The winner of the symmetric war wants to govern the region (or hand it off to a local client government) at a finite cost. A colonial ruler, for instance, maintains grip over the remote region as a profit making proposition, and will soon abandon it if it becomes too troublesome to hold.

If the asymmetric warriors - in this setting let's call them insurgents and their opponents occupiers - can make the territory ungovernable and establish themselves in such a way that they cannot be crushed within the cost parameters of the occupiers, then eventually the occupiers will have to give them at least part of what they want. This may however cause a vicious cycle of violence if making territory ungovernable becomes the standard way local rulers, e.g. Afghan warlords, Chinese mayors, win concessions. This is of far more concern to local people than occupiers, so the willingness of locals to deal with insurgents as equals is often less than that of the occupying power. This is one of many reasons to use local proxies to fight colonial wars, rather than troops from the colonial power: the local proxies are committed and so fight harder and resist better if they believe they will be subject to unjust rule by the insurgents - should those win. Occupiers also cannot escape moral liability of facilitating tactics like torture in Latin America or the use of weapons like cruise missiles that kill many civilians.

"Winning", which would require the usually-unfit-and-divided insurgents to take over the state, may be a losing proposition and lead to chaos in the insurgent movement itself. In Gaza, for instance, Hamas leaders who were politically visible and prominent in organizing became easier to track and were assassinated by Israeli forces. This may have backfired badly on Israel, when Hamas won subsequent elections, but under leaders who were at least cognizant of the consequences of failing to behave like a political party not an insurgent group.

If they stay outside the formal political system (which simulates and replaces insurgent fighting) insurgents merely need to keep the expense of dealing with them very high. In other words, insurgents win by not losing. If the occupiers find the status quo levels of security to be unacceptable, but have no acceptable way to bring the insurgency to an end, then it is only a matter of time before they realize their goals cannot be achieved. It's up to the occupiers to decide when to stop the bleeding and admit defeat, but they have lost. This is the story of the Americans in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and white settler governments in various parts of Africa. It is arguably the story of the Americans in Iraq as well.

Some would say it is the story also of Ashkenazi Jews in the former Palestine. However, the story of the West Bank and Gaza is more complex because the Israeli level of commitment very nearly matches that of its opponents. Israel is unable to crush the Palestinian insurgency, but seems ready to bleed at this level into the indefinite future. The Israel-Hizbollah conflict, 2006 may however have proven the diplomatic isolation arising from this kind of confrontation to be insurmountable.

"Israel has a right to defend herself," President Bush said, but nations and individuals have a right to do all kinds of misguided things. What Hizbollah loses is quite easily replaced: Iran can send more rockets, and the number of people willing to die in order to kill Israelis has surely gone up in the past few weeks. Killing your enemies, if it's done badly, increases their number. What Israel loses, however, is diplomatic cover and its perception of invicibility in the region.

Years of WWII movies may explain why Americans have a hard time grasping this basic fact: Right up to the day the occupying power admits defeat and pulls out, it continues to wield overwhelming force. It may never lose a pitched battle. It may - right up to the end - be able to go where it wants, killing and destroying at will. That doesn't mean it's not losing.

The recruitment pipeline

If insurgents win by not losing, then the question shifts: How do they lose?

They lose by wasting away. Their numbers diminish by death, captivity, or discouragement and they are unable to replenish themselves with new recruits. Recruiting is an essential part of any insurgency, because the occupiers will always appear to be winning the battle of attrition. Occupying soldiers are trying to kill insurgents while insurgents are trying to avoid occupiers, so any body count will favor the occupiers - right up to the day they admit defeat and pull out.

In a successful insurgency, warriors are only the tip of a large iceberg. Even though the number of active warriors may be small, a much larger segment of the population is at some earlier stage of recruitment. Some sympathize with the insurgents silently; they know who the warriors are, but chose not to tell the occupiers. Some help in small ways, by delivering messages, holding money, or even hiding weapons. Some harbor warriors and help them hide from the occupiers. Some will not fight, but will act as look-outs and report the movements of occupying troops. A successful insurgency is always losing warriors (sometimes by intentional suicide attacks), but the pipeline of recruitment is full of people moving to ever greater levels of commitment.

The greater the perception that the population will regret living under the occupier or central government (however "lawful"), the more likely that family members won't discourage involvement in the insurgency, and perhaps even encourage it or fund it. The Irish Republican Army, for instance, benefitted from the perception that the Potato Famine of seventy years earlier was not an isolated event but part of a genocide, and that to continue to be ruled by England would at some future time result in such an event.

Occupiers who continue to think in a symmetric, conventional-war mindset (with its sharp distinctions between soldiers and civilians) do not see these flows of perceived future regret, sympathy and commitment. If the insurgency has, say, ten thousand warriors, then these occupiers believe they win by removing ten thousand insurgent pieces from the board.

But they don't win, because in the course of removing those ten thousand pieces the occupiers push some number of sympathizers further down the path of commitment to the insurgency, convincing them that the occupiers don't value their lives and will keep on ruling as if they don't once the insurgents are gone. Ten, twenty, thirty thousand insurgents may die or be captured, and still the war goes on. A man who stays out of the war for fear of losing his house will join it when his house becomes "collateral damage." Each family that loses a member in an occupier attack - especially an innocent member like a child - will move further down the path of recruitment. Emotional reactions count, of course, as in all politics, but their choice to support insurgents may be quite rational.

The deep rationality of insurgent warriors is obvious from the slow way they get started: In the beginning, an insurgency is a small group of warriors moving in a large sea of people who are waiting to see what happens next. Maybe the occupier will be gentle. Maybe life will go on in some acceptable way. The insurgents' first goal is to goad the occupier into using its overwhelming force so that life cannot go on in an acceptable way.

A foolish occupier swats flies with hammers, creating disproportionate damage and forcing the previously ambivalent population to choose sides, while simultaneously proving that the occupier's entire system of decision making values the lives of civilians very low.

Once the insurgency's pipeline of recruitment is well established, the only exclusively military solution available to the occupier is genocide, or some form of ethnic cleansing that will move the insurgent-sympathizing population somewhere else. An occupier who is unwilling to go that far - or unable because they have a global economy or alliances that they can't survive without - must accept the fact that overwhelming force alone is not enough. Military force must continue to play a role, but only in support of a political solution that gives the asymmetric warriors a reason to lay down their arms.

In the words of Dan King, a Canadian analyst:

"You've got to kill all the terrorists, and give them whatever they want."

Occupier strategy

If a direct kill-the-insurgents strategy is doomed to failure, what can the occupier do?

The Vietnam-era notion of "winning hearts and minds" is not just a way for guilt-ridden liberals to feel better about themselves. It deals with the real problem: the whole pipeline of sympathy and recruitment, not just the comparatively small number of active insurgent warriors.

Every policy of the occupier - and especially any use of force - must be examined in light of its effect on insurgent recruitment. A search-and-destroy operation may kill dozens of insurgents with only minor occupier casualties, and still be a net loss if it pushes the general population further down the recruitment pipeline. A lawnmower may cut down dozens of dandelions, but if it scatters their seeds hundreds more will pop up.

All effective anti-insurgent strategies involve drying up the supply of recruits by isolating the insurgents from the larger population. In the so-called "ink spot" strategies the isolation is geographic: a small area is pacified and reconstructed to the point that it becomes governable. The population, seeing the benefits of peaceful governance, resists insurgent efforts to infiltrate. The surrounding areas come to envy the pacified area, and the governable "ink spot" spreads. Other kinds of isolation can also work, as long as the population comes to see a clear separation between itself and the insurgents rather than a slippery slope.

Insurgency by its nature is a low-lifespan occupation. Lenin's line about revolutionaries - that they are dead men on furlough - applies even moreso to insurgents. They must take action to stay relevant, and any action they take carries great risk. Without a constant resupply of recruits ready to die, an insurgency withers.

In order to disrupt that supply, the occupier need not be loved. It need only convince the population that ending the occupation is not worth dying for.

The anti-timetable fallacy

Much current rhetoric falls apart once these basic principles are understood. For example, consider the Bush administration's main argument against setting a timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq: that the insurgents would bide their time until we had left, and then rise up again.

If only they would.

Think about it: Suppose the insurgents sat on their hands for a year while they waited for us to withdraw. Iraq, in other words, gets a year of peaceful governance and reconstruction. Roads and power plants are built. Businesses are started. Pipelines transport oil without interruption while tens of billions of petrodollars flow into the country. People rebuild their homes, get jobs, enroll their children in school. And most of all, old wounds recede ever farther into the past.

What happens to the insurgent recruitment pipeline during that year? It collapses. In the course of that year, many people who thought they were willing to die would realize they had something to live for. No insurgent leader could allow it.

I don't know what actually would happen if the U.S. announced a timetable for withdrawal, and maybe there are legitimate reasons to be against such a move. But I guarantee that the insurgents would not sit back and wait for us to leave.

War: what's it good for?

Most liberals are pacifists: they believe military power has its uses, and it does some things very well. If, for example, the goal in Iraq had just been to capture Saddam Hussein, this was done. A similar operation might have captured Osama Bin Laden. Bosnia is far from paradise these days, but at least people aren't dying by the tens of thousands. With similar care the genocide in Rwanda might have been stopped, and the one in Darfur still could be. And if anyone knew a way to go into North Korea and come out a few days later with Kim Jong-il and all the nuclear materials, many would be all for it.

But military force is a blunt instrument, and used badly it creates more enemies than it kills. If you're not prepared to kill millions of people then you have to find a way to circumscribe your enemies, so their numbers aren't instantly replenished, with interest, as soon as you kill them.

In the long run, if you aren't willing to commit genocide against your enemy's recruitment pool, then every use of force has to be carefully calibrated. Because it might not be a pool, it might be an aquifer.

This article is adapted from a Jul 31, 2006 diary by Pericles.

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This page was last modified 01:36, 30 July 2008 by dKosopedia user Patrick0Moran. Based on work by Chad Lupkes and dKosopedia user(s) Anonymous troll. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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