Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: A Conflict Without a Name

How should we classify Mexico's drug violence?

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) What kind of problem does Mexico have?

2) Can the United States cope with 21st century warfare?

What kind of problem does Mexico have?

On Feb. 15, gunmen on a highway in central Mexico stopped a vehicle with U.S. diplomatic license plates and shot the two men inside. Killed in the attack was Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent. A second ICE agent was wounded. In response to the attack, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) declared that "this tragic event is a game changer" that "should be a long overdue wake-up call for the Obama administration that there is a war on our nation's doorstep."

Should what's happening in Mexico be described as a war? On Feb. 7, U.S. Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal described Mexico's troubles as a "form of insurgency," an assertion that immediately provoked a strong rebuke from Mexico's Foreign Ministry. U.S. policymakers need to fashion a strategy in response to a dire security situation across the border that does not seem to be improving. But as Clausewitz advised two centuries ago, before doing so, they would be well advised to first understand what kind of conflict they face.

In a piece for Small Wars Journal, Robert Bunker, a researcher at the University of Southern California, discussed five conflict models by which analysts might classify the troubles in Mexico. A further goal of Bunker's essay was to encourage experts on each of the models to cooperate with each other in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the situation in Mexico.

In Bunker's taxonomy, gang studies, the specialty of some criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, is one way to analyze events in Mexico. Students of gang operations analyze how gangs capture control of neighborhoods, prison populations, and local drug markets. Next is organized crime studies, also the purview of criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, but a level of criminal activity that would imply more organizational sophistication and broader territoriality than that implied by gang studies. A third classification is terrorism studies, a focus of academics and government officials at the national and international levels. Under a terrorism model, cartels in Mexico would use terror to compel compliance from rival gangs, government officials, and non-combatants. Insurgency studies are the fourth paradigm, currently an interest of academics and military planners. Under this model, cartels could ultimately form shadow governments either in parallel or inside the legitimate government. Finally, there are future warfare studies, a province of academics which hypothesizes the creation of new transnational organizational structures that could both combine and supplant governments, security forces, criminal organizations, and corporate interests.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government struggled against two problems. First, it failed to correctly characterize the initial nature of its adversaries, how they were organized, how their networks of relationships operated, and what tactics they would employ. Second, adversaries in both conflicts rapidly adapted to changing circumstances; U.S. planners were slow at first to understand these adaptations and adjust themselves, although they improved in this regard later in each conflict.

The Mexican government currently believes it has a straightforward organized crime problem and as the Westphal incident illustrates, has little patience for alternate points of view. Should analysts and the policymakers on the U.S. side come to a different conclusion, it could make cooperation with their Mexican counterparts difficult.

Bunker argues that signs of all five models are present in Mexico. He also seems to have a lingering fear that the fifth paradigm and the worst case scenario -- some new form of sophisticated transnational criminal-military organization -- may yet predominate. It is this scenario that neither the Mexican nor U.S. governments seem prepared to contemplate. Bunker's call for cooperation among the analysts sounds like timely advice.

Can the United States cope with 21st century warfare?

It's been nearly a decade since the 9/11 attacks and most Americans sense by now that warfare in the 21st century has turned into a frustrating slog. Many are likely sick of their government spending hundreds of billions of dollars every year on defense, yet failing to deliver decisive results against its adversaries or even delivering a sense of improved security. Is there a gap between the 21st century style of warfare and what the Pentagon actually spends its money and time preparing for? It may be time for a close examination of modern warfare and what adjustments U.S. society will have to make in order to cope with a new and seemingly inscrutable battleground.

In 2010, the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute organized a conference for just this purpose, the results of which were summarized in a long essay written by two of the conference's participants. The conference yielded conclusions on what kinds of adversaries are likely to predominate in the current era, what strategies and tactics they are likely to employ, who is likely to actually participate in modern wars, and what new challenges policymakers will face in organizing for modern security challenges.

Nation-states still prepare for traditional conventional conflict, if only to deter the recurrence of 20th century, industrial-scale bloodletting and preserve the geopolitical status quo. Those preparations have not stopped alternate forms of warfare from breaking out. At least one side in every ongoing conflict in the world today is composed of non-state groups: spontaneously organized militias, part-time insurgents, full-time terrorists, amateur cyberwarriors, professional mercenaries, or some other type of irregular combatant. Uniformed soldiers of nation-states still go to war but almost never against uniformed soldiers from another nation-state.

There are several reasons for this denationalization of warfare. Most obvious is the strong incentive for combatants to avoid modern military firepower by acting as civilians and by living among the non-combatant population. Combatants also learned during the second half of the 20th century that it was possible win a war of attrition against a wealthy nation-state by avoiding decisive military engagements and implementing political and propaganda strategies in support of an open-ended but low-intensity campaign.

Irregular combatants have recently learned to further improve their odds by remaining as anonymous as possible. Anonymous cyberwarriors avoid cyberretaliation while insurgents in decentralized cells avoid intelligence officers who are experts at disrupting organizations. And with nation-states now having strong political incentives to avoid having their soldiers overtly engaged in warfare, their leaders may increasingly hire irregulars and anonymous proxies as their combatants. An odd result of these layers of deception will be confusion over when a war has begun, when it has ended, or whether some security problems are really wars at all.

In the West, warfare has become a narrow technical profession, but this may change. For the United States, war is waged by a relatively tiny group of volunteer professionals who are supplied and supported by another sliver of specialized technicians. In many places armed contractors outnumber the soldiers, which blurs the line between who is a combatant. At the same time, legal developments concerning war all trend toward restricting the military freedom of action of nation-states, a tendency that has encouraged the growth of unregulated irregular and anonymous combatants, actors to whom states may increasingly turn to do their fighting.

U.S. policymakers face steep challenges in coping with the modern era of warfare. Aircraft carriers, submarines, and stealth fighters are an insurance policy against very costly conventional combat, but the threats requiring these costly levels of insurance coverage may be too abstract for many taxpayers. Meanwhile, after a decade of frustration and indecision, there remain questions about whether the U.S. government is capable of sustaining an effective campaign against irregular and anonymous adversaries. Policymakers have to resolve these challenges if they are to convince the public they are still relevant to modern security problems.


Slapout, that is the gem of the week brother. Liked it so much I had to post the words to the song here. This song expresses it better than U.S. doctrine. Billy Jack would have pointed us to this song right away:-)

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

slapout9 (not verified)

Sat, 02/19/2011 - 8:26pm

As the unofficial DJ (Disc Jockey) of the SWC... here is some Saturday night music for "Conflict Without a Name." It's called "For What It's Worth" and it includes the lyrics which seem to be very descriptive of our current situation. And now brought to you semi-live from the Cultural center of the universe....1970 The Buffalo Springfield

G Martin

Sat, 02/19/2011 - 12:24pm

Great post, Mr. Jones!

This reminds me of going to lunch while visiting a buddy at Bagram Airfield and seeing a whole host of contractors waiting in line as we cut in front of them. At my enquiring look my buddy explained: "the 101st won't let civilians eat until 1200." I'm sure the "insurgents" would scratch their heads at our delineation between "civilian" and "military".

The way we define and divide what we do is at the same time instructive as to our culture- and points to an ineffectiveness on the part of our bureaucratic mindset. To understand and execute war (and most anything else) we have to separate it from our people and most everything else. This separation has even made military officers comment in public that they are "better" than the civilians they serve. Then we artificially categorize it, describe it, and define it.

The reality for much (most?) of the rest of the world is that war is just another part of competition (ALL competition: cultural, economic, political, etc.)- and it doesn't have to follow rules, be sponsored by a nation-state, or even have a formal/doctrinal underpinning. In fact, the less "like war" it looks- the better: as we in the West struggle with how to address it (our circle-shape of military power has to be forced into holes that are anything but circular).

In my mind I see a cartoon drawing of Uncle Sam. He is trying to stick a kid's puzzle together by fitting different shapes into a hole. The shapes are square, circular, triangular and marked with "diplomatic", "economic", "military", and "information". The hole is a jagged, explosion-like hole that won't accept any of the regular shapes. A group of people representing Congress/DoD/the President/and several think-tanks then elbows Uncle Sam aside and supplants him with General Patreaus- who has a box marked "3-24" with bigger squares, circles and triangles. The DoD guy says, "don't worry, we'll keep surging these shapes- it's bound to work eventually."

War hasn't changed- we've changed. The "West" is an Earthly anomaly. We are an advanced and complex bureaucracy fixated on materialism, having fun, working hard, our own individual interests, and our kids. We rarely, if ever, miss a meal. We worry about "meaning" and the next generation and the planet. Most of our kids have rarely been in a fight. We've made getting hurt and feeling pain illegal. For perhaps the first time ever our planet is being ruled by entire groups of obtuse people (instead of obtuse rulers or a ruling class) who have no clue what reality has been (and still is) for the vast majority of the human species- and what underpins base human emotions.

Bob's World

Sat, 02/19/2011 - 10:24am

1GW (George Washington) would scratch his head at all this "GW" talk.

Robert Bunker suggests an "ordinal continuum," and now Robert Haddick offers yet another evolution of warfare to "6GW." You guys are killing me. There is nothing new about the situation in Mexico, other than the speed with which it is growing and the scope it is taking on. This is largely a function of the tremendous profits to be made, the illegality of the marketplace, and the modern advances of information and transportation technologies.

So it has always been.

As a young man fighting forest fires in the mountains of SW Oregon I learned there were certain fundamentals to fire. It requires fuel and oxygen, and heat goes up. Ignore those principles and the fire will kill you. Respect and apply those principles and the hottest fire can be (relatively) quickly contained and subdued.

There are similar principles at work in Mexico. Our problem is that we create functional sanctuaries around the critical components of such problems. We have built such a functional sanctuary around the Karzai government in Afghanistan, and attack the smoke and flames of the insurgency instead. We do the same thing in Mexico. We build a functional sanctuary around the illegality of the market and around the US demand for this illegal product and then seek to attack the smoke and flames of the cartels and gangs who form to exloit the conditions we protect.

When faced with a forest fire, the flames and smoke are overwhelming. They are in your face, choking and burning you. They will kill you in an instant if you get in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if you attack what can kill you, you will lose. One must learn to embrace the smoke and flame, and attack the fuel that feeds them.

We create sancuaries around the fuel of these conflicts, be they insurgencies in Afghanistan, or criminal violence in Mexico. Such approaches are doomed to fail and are incredibly expensive. I've seen 5 guys with shovels and hazel hoes contain a fire that retardant bombers and water trucks couldn't put a dent in. We need to get smart, we need to get dirty, we need to assume some risk and go after the things that fuel these problems.

6gw (not verified)

Sat, 02/19/2011 - 9:32am

Where is the original article on 4GW?

slapout9 (not verified)

Sat, 02/19/2011 - 12:26am

The original article on 4GW describes very accurately what is happening in the world. And like many of the original 4GW advocates have stated we don't know how to fight it very well. Which is why we are in very deep trouble. We are being defeated at the "Mental" level of War.

George Boldi (not verified)

Fri, 02/18/2011 - 7:31pm

The US government gives roughly $500 million every other year or so in aid to Mexico's government for their part of the GWOD (Global War On Drugs). The Narco-Traffiking business in Mexico is thought to generate $50 billion in economic juice for that country each and every year. Roughly 5% of the economy I'd think. Felipe Calderón has sent the military into the fight but fight for just what? Perhaps not to eliminate the narco-traffiking business but to take it over. Direct and significant pressure is being applied to all of the city and regional traffiking groups except the Sinaloans and Chapo Guzman (Mexico's supposedly 'most wanted man'). $50 Billion is a *LOT* of toot up a *LOT* of snoots. It is that 'market' that needs to be addressed if there is ever to be a reduction in that business. Meanwhile, Calderón succeeding will bring some order and stability to the business and hopefully from that a reduction in the violence plaguing civil society.

Mark Pyruz

Fri, 02/18/2011 - 5:53pm


Maybe a better description would be "brigandry"

gerald (not verified)

Fri, 02/18/2011 - 5:21pm

Without a political component(the Zetas are a drug cartel) the conflict in Mexico should be considered a campaign against banditry. In the same vein as the FBI's actions against American bootleggers in the 1920's and 1930's.

tequila (not verified)

Fri, 02/18/2011 - 4:41pm

Was the attack on the ICE agents significantly different from the kidnap/murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1984?