The Fourth Generation Warfare Reason to Ditch the “War on Terrorism” Analogy

Gulliver and the Lilliputians

After the underwear bomber incident, all together too many people are talking about how Yemen is now the central front of the war on terrorism and preemptive action is necessary and if Yemen’s dysfunctional government can’t do what needs to be done then the U.S. should step in and do it for them (as usual, Senator Lieberman can be counted on as the go-to guy for idiotic pronouncements here). To me the events of recent days really show what’s wrong with the U.S. reaction being dominated by the notion of a “war on terrorism,” and the superiority of the strategy of treating terrorism as an issue of law enforcement as enunciated by, among others, John Kerry throughout 2004.

What we’re facing is the classic squeezing a balloon problem: the United States can deploy 112,000 solders to Iraq and another 98,000 to Afghanistan, and thousands more throughout Central and Southeast Asia and in the Pacific Islands and the terrorists just pick up their laptops, sell their Range Rovers and relocate their operation to the Horn of Africa, or the outer reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile the U.S. is stuck for the next decade in whatever country owing to the weight of tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tones of heavy metal.

We are engaged in a fourth generation-type struggle with an opponent employing the classical tactics of asymmetric warfare. The object for the opponent on the presumptively disadvantaged side of the asymmetry is to adopt a strategy whereby the seeming advantages of the preponderant power are transformed into weaknesses. The war on terrorism is a contest of strategic dexterity and in this case the very weight, size and overwhelming capability of the U.S. military has become its greatest liability.

The game that has been played by al Qaeda et al. is that of miring the U.S. in regions of declining strategic importance. Terrorists are Lilliputians and the U.S. Gulliver. Only in this story Gulliver ties himself down. The Lilliputians only have to indicate where he should sink the stakes and he applies the lashes to himself.

While I am deeply skeptical of black ops, secret programs, plausible deniability, assassination, et cetera, I generally agree with the idea that the only time counter-terrorist actions should make the news is when something has gone wrong. The Predator drone and special forces operations that are being conducted along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border seems correct in conception, if still problematic in execution, to me. And of course this level of militarization is still awfully high. The FBI is the U.S. government agency with the largest presence abroad after the Pentagon and the State Department. Treasury is quickly following suite. Counter-terrorism should only become subject to special forces means under extreme circumstances. The rest of the time it should be dealt with by the various legal investigative agencies.

Whatever the case, our reaction to terrorism needs to be in kind: nimble, dynamic, human not territory oriented, multifaceted.

A strategic studies acquaintance commented the other day that he can’t wait for the reigning generation of the foreign policy establishment to retire, because they are a bunch of Cold War relics, mired in the mindset of a bygone era. The idea of stateless actors is beyond their comprehension. In this regard one of the most seminal moments in the U.S. reaction to mass-casualty terrorism was Paul Wolfowitz’s 13 September 2001 press conference, where he said the following (DoD News Briefing, The Pentagon, Arlington, VA):

I think one has to say it’s not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. And that’s why it has to be a broad and sustained campaign. It’s not going to stop if a few criminals are taken care of.

I believe that in some ultimate sense Paul Wolfowitz has been right about Islamic extremism: that it is not our war, that we cannot fight it, that it is not a war that can be won in the realm of strictly materialist forces, but that it is a struggle of ideology, that it can only be settled among those most immediately concerned, that the most the U.S. can do is indirectly effect this outcome through the opening of a space where moderate, modernist, liberal Islam can flourish. This was Secretary Wolfowitz’s idea for Iraq: that it would become the Islamic “city on the hill.” That he could simultaneously have been so wrong makes Paul Wolfowitz one of the tragic figures of the post-11 September period.

But this idea, that states and territory are what is important, this was the commanding idea of the early Bush administration. But the strategy of militarily occupying every square mile of lawless territory on the Earth and engaging in nation building in every failed state is beyond our capability. It is how the strength of a great power will be sapped.

Iraq and Vietnam; Civil Wars and Asymmetric Conflict

Someone at some point should drive home to the right that Iraq and Vietnam are not some apparition or anomaly requiring exceptional explanation — namely the Dolchstoßlegende — but in fact the historical trend.

Our historical-materialist problems in Iraq are multifaceted. Iraq is a combination of two pernicious trends: one relating to civil wars and one relating to asymmetric conflict.

First, on the issue of civil wars, they are by nature long, intractable and fought to the bitter, bloody end. The Los Angeles Times had the good sense to have Barbara F. Walter, author of the study, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (2002), write a brief summary of her survey of civil wars and the likely meaning for Iraq (Walter, Barbara F., “You Can’t Win With Civil Wars,” Los Angeles Times, 2 October 2007):

The approximately 125 civil wars — conflicts involving a government and rebels that produce at least 1,000 battle deaths — since 1945 tell us several things: The civil war in Iraq will drag on for many more years; it will end in a decisive victory for either the Shiites or the Sunnis, not in a compromise settlement; and the weaker side will never sign a settlement or lay down its arms because it has no way to enforce the terms.

Civil wars don’t end quickly. The average length of all civil wars since 1945 is 10 years. Conflicts in Burma, Angola, India, the Philippines, Chad and Colombia have lasted more than 30 years. Wars in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Lebanon, Sudan and Peru have lasted more than 15 years. Even Iraq’s previous civil war, fought against the Kurds, lasted 14 years.

This suggests that, historically speaking, Iraq’s current civil war could be in its early stages, with nothing to suggest that it will be a short, easy war.

Another lesson from history is that the greater the number of factions involved in a civil war, the longer it is likely to persist. Iraq simply has too many factions, with too much outside support, to come to a compromise settlement now. Not only is there no Shiite or Sunni who can speak for all of his side’s factions, but the parliament seems incapable of stopping the violence between these groups.

Civil wars rarely end in negotiated settlements. In research for a book on the topic, I found that 76% of civil wars between 1945 and 2005 ended only after one side had defeated all others. Only 24% ended in some form of negotiated solution. This suggests that the war in Iraq will not end at the bargaining table but on the battlefield.

Second, on the issue of asymmetric conflict, the trend over the last two centuries is toward small powers defeating larger ones, to the point where in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, small powers actually defeat large powers more often than not. Below is figure 2 from Ivan Arreguín-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conlict,” (International Security, vol. 26, no. 1, Summer 2001, pp. 93–128).

Arreguín-Toft, Ivan, "How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conlict," International Security, vol. 26, no. 1, Summer 2001, pp. 93–128, Figure 2: Percentage of Asymmetric Conflict Victories by Type of Actor in Four Fifty-Year Periods

Given these two trends, the deck was stacked against the U.S., even with the greatest effort, but since it was undertaken by the Solomon Grundy administration (Wikipedia | Sean Baby) we never stood a chance. They know how to smash and that’s about it.

Neither of these two observations are new: both trends were generally known at the time of the invasion of Iraq — Ms. Walter’s book is from 2002 and Mr. Arreguín-Toft’s article is from 2001 and neither were breaking new ground. Five year on, it is now completely apparent outside of administration propagandists that the key strategic judgment with respect to Iraq was not how many soldiers in the initial invasion, or how many in the subsequent occupation, or whether to intervene in the looting, or to disband the Iraqi army, or seasoned experts versus right-wing sycophants to staff the CPA, or any of the many, many other mistakes, but whether to go into Iraq or not in the first place. Barring sufficient historical awareness here, at least the administration should have known and acted like the odds were not in favor of success. Instead we got the fast-talker’s sales pitch.

And as the Dolchstoßlegende crowd now attempts to rewrite the history of the Iraq debacle a la the Vietnam War version thereof, it should be born in mind that that war was part and parcel of these trends.