Asymmetric Warfare, Modern Insurgencies, and the War on Terror

There's something that's been driving me a little crazy since the weeks after 9/11. The War on Terror is not a war in the sense that World War II or the Civil War were wars, and speaking of it in those terms for years has lead to fundamental misunderstandings among the American populace. Those were symmetric conflicts, very different in nature from the current asymmetric forces we face. This fundamental difference, although given the occasional mention by the traditional media, is not well understood. It is especially poorly understood amongst the conservatives still defending George W. Bush. Given the ungroked status of asymmetric warfare, I've decided to pontificate and try to free some minds. I've been lead to believe that's what blogs are for.

So, to begin, we should define our terms and thereby enumerate the differences between symmetric and asymmetric warfare.

A symmetric conflict is one between powers of roughly equivalent strength, using roughly equivalent tactics, and working towards roughly equivalent goals - normally driving the enemy from territory. In symmetric wars, it is comparatively easy to discern combatants from civilians, as the combatants wear uniforms. In the Medieval period, cavalry, archers and footmen fought cavalry, archers and footmen. In World War I, entrenched machinegunners faced entrenched machinegunners. In order to win the symmetric war your army must capture territory and hold it against counterattack. As the territory controlled by the losing army shrinks, so too does its ability to effectively resist the winning army. Eventually the losing army is so anemic that a surrender is inevitable, and the war is won. This is why symmetric conflicts tend to be so tidy - because there is a front line, civilians aren't intentionally put in the way, and the losing side is actually beaten at the conclusion.

The history of warfare before the 20th Century is almost entirely a story of symmetric war. Every conflict that engulfed more than a province was of the symmetric variety, so we as a species have had plenty of practice with this type of fighting. Futhermore, because this type of conflict is always tethered directly to a state, it is really governments (or Kings, depending on your time period) that are calling the shots. As such, there is a command structure and order imposed from on high. Since the goals of each pair of competing Kings are so nearly identical, and because Kings by definition don't care about their population individually, an almost amicable arrangement evolved. The Rules of Warfare - an oxymoronic phrase in the present - served to civilize the conflict and ensure that the end goals wouldn't be ruined by an excessively messy conflict. Effectively, these rules developed in order to allow the Kings to continue engaging in their wars with regularity.

Asymmetric conflicts occur when the losers either don't know or don't care that they've been beaten. What terrible manners! In the case of modern conflicts where the nearly omnipotent American military is involved, the losers realize that to fight a conventional war would merely assure their humiliating deaths. No one likes dying, even less-so dying in futility, so different tactics must be adopted.

Notably, the strategic goal of symmetric armies is missing in asymmetric warfare. Rather than trying to hold territory via stand-up battles, the guerrillas immediately cede the battlefield. They give the enemy seemingly complete control of the land, allowing them to travel anywhere and destroy anything they like. The insurgents hide their uniforms, if they ever had any, and blend into the population with the intention of avoiding every tactical engagement where more than a handful of them could be killed at a time. They hit-and-run, attacking lightly defended targets of opportunity and then disappearing back into their civilian warrens.

Strategically, the goals of the insurgents are entirely different than the goals of the occupying power. Although their ultimate goal is similar - to control the territory - asymmetric combatants have the home-turf advantage. As simple as that sounds, it has profound strategic implications. The insurgents have a natural base of support in the people that lost the symmetric conflict, including those that used to be in power before the occupying army took the region. The insurgents can use the punishment meted out by the occupier to further increase their support base via the common persecution psychology that has been illustrated effectively so many times. Most importantly, however, the cost of maintaining the conflict doesn't matter to the insurgents, both because the cost is so much lower than for the occupying army and because the motivation for continuing the conflict into insurgency tends to be so viscerally strong. Be it the lingering taste of usurped power or boiling vengeance for dead relatives, the insurgent's dedication creates an entirely different calculus for the war.

The cost of the occupation matters to the occupiers, but the cost of the resistance does not matter to the insurgents. This leads to a single, clear goal for the insurgents - don't lose. Every time the insurgents attack infrastructure, lob some mortars, or car-bomb the local U.N. headquarters, they increase the cost of the occupation for the occupiers, and the occupiers, by definition, cannot expend an unlimited amount of resources to control the occupied land. As long as the violence continues apace, the insurgents are winning. Eventually, therefore, the occupiers are forced to leave simply by virtue of cost.

Note that during the entirety of the occupation, the occupying power continues to have absolute military superiority over the region. There is no target the occupying army cannot destroy, and there is no force of guerrillas the occupying army will not kill in a stand-up fight. As in Vietnam, the occupying army can win every single tactical engagement and still be losing the war because they cannot effectively decrease the violence perpetrated by the guerrillas and therefore the costs continuously increase.

So, if the insurgents win by not losing, how is it possible for the occupying power to win? The key to winning the war is stopping the process by which civilians become insurgents, because cost considerations do not matter to the resistance. The recruitment pipeline for insurgencies are their lifeblood, since their individual members tend to die so quickly in exchanges with the occupying army. Recruitment is facilitated in every way by violence. Violence kills innocents and recruits are born. Violence ruins the economy and young men are driven into the arms of the insurgents. Fighting the occupiers offers a purpose - the noble vocation of defending your country - to fill the existential void of living without hope.

If the occupying power needs to disrupt the recruitment pipeline in order to win the war, how can that be accomplished? Since violence is the driving force for recruitment, violence is what needs to be addressed. The gold standard for counterinsurgency is the Inkblot Strategy. The strategy is essentially a clear, hold, and build strategy, where first the active insurgents are suppressed through massive occupier presence. Those guerrillas that stand up and fight are killed, and if enough occupying troops are in the area, a quiet ensues. With occupiers on every street corner, the insurgents cannot move arms, set IEDs, or significantly interfere with the next stage of the strategy. As calm settles, massive investment is poured into the area to repair battle damage and crippled infrastructure. This investment creates local jobs, improving everyone's quality of life both through services provided by that new infrastructure and gainful employment for the young men that would otherwise flock to the insurgency. In this area of stability, things get better, and the rest of the country feels the twinge of envy. Once the inkblot has been established it is the task of the occupiers to expand the area slowly, and thereby eventually win the occupation.

Unfortunately for us, this strategy is not available to us in Iraq. There's really just one sticking point that would constrain us even if we had leadership interested in changing strategies. Namely, we don't have any more troops to deploy into the country. Without those troops, we can only implement a "clear and leave" strategy, which is not a strategy that has any chance of success. How many times did we have to pacify Fallujah and Ramadi, after all?

The fix the Bush loyalists see for this problem is the training of the Iraqi Army and Police forces to create the troops needed to impliment and expand the inkblot strategy. I can't remember the numbers exactly, but we are planning on training close to 300,000 Iraqi troops to take our place. Well, currently we have nearly 270,000 troops trained. If we are at 90% of our goal, and if we are to "stand down as they stand up," then why aren't conditions improving enough for us to "stand down?" The answer lies in the nature of the troops we are training. They do not think of themselves as Iraqis, but rather as ethnic militias working for their own sect's goals. The very forces we are training are part of the cause of the increasing sectarian violence, not part of the solution for that increase.

So, if we cannot do what we need to do to win, why should we be there? If we are not interested in paying the price required for victory, why should we pay the price of the status quo? We have had 22,000 casualties in this war, and a two trillion dollar impact to the economy. Is this a price worth paying to continue a strategy doomed to failure?

Asymmetric Warfare requires an entirely different approach than does Total War. The Republican Party, who advocate an indefinite continuation of our pre-ordained failure in Iraq, does not understand the subtleties of use of force. Instead, they allow themselves to be ruled by emotions - by the satisfying feeling of blowing the hell out of someone. We need real leadership, and that means telling the American people that we have to fight a smart war against our real opponents, rather than a viscerally satisfying war against an entire region. There will be fewer explosions on TV during our smart war - our global counterinsurgency - but we will be safer as a result.

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